Dominic Thiem defeated Alexander Zverev to reach his first Australian Open final but he now faces the daunting task of taking down seven-time champion Novak Djokovic in Sunday night’s tournament decider.
The fifth-seeded Thiem dropped the first set against Zverev in the second of the men’s semi-finals, however he rebounded to win 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7/3), 7-6 (7/4) in a tight encounter lasting three hours and 42 minutes on Rod Laver Arena.
It will be Thiem’s third appearance in a final of a major, as he has finished runner-up to Rafael Nadal at the past two French Opens.
But his assignment could not be more difficult, with Djokovic — a 16-time major singles winner —having never lost a final at Melbourne Park.
The second seed Djokovic advanced to the final following a straight-sets win over long-time rival Roger Federer on Thursday night.
Thiem said Zverev had proven to be a tough opponent to get past.
“It was an unreal match,” Thiem said in his courtside interview.
“Again, two tiebreaks, so tough and so close. It was almost impossible to break him. Such a high percentage on his first serve.
“But [making the] Australian Open final is absolutely unreal. What a start to the season so far.”
The match could not be described as a classic, with both players piling up the unforced errors, but the high quality of several rallies kept the crowd entertained.
What was impressive about Thiem’s performance was the fact that he ignored fatigue the longer the match went on, having had to carry a heavy workload the past fortnight.
Thiem had been on court for almost 15 hours — with Zverev spending fewer than 11 — in the lead-up to the semi-final and the Austrian also had to contend with the late finish of his quarter-final against Nadal.
“I was in bed at around five [in the morning] two days ago,” Thiem said.
“So it was not easy to recover. But once all the adrenaline came I was fine.”
Thiem and Zverev have been at the forefront of the next generation of stars in men’s tennis, with both having been tipped for some time to be among those who might break the stranglehold of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer.
Almost the entire match was played under the roof after rain began to fall on the court early in the first set, providing the players with some respite as the temperature was still in the mid-30s following a 40-plus degree day.
Both Thiem and Zverev dropped their opening service games, as they made tentative starts to what was their first appearance in the Australian Open semi-finals.
Thiem’s nerves were not helped either by the unforced errors he was committing, as he had already racked up nine when he was broken by Zverev for a second time in the seventh game.
A third break of the Thiem serve — two games later — then handed Zverev the first set in 40 minutes.
Thiem storms back into contention
Zverev’s confidence level was riding high but he was brought back down to Earth when he was broken by Thiem early in the second set.
Thiem consolidated the break for a 3-1 lead but the set was soon back on serve when Zverev broke the Austrian, with an overhead smash providing the full stop to the sixth game.
Zverev, though, immediately fell behind again.
An almost-unreturnable forehand volley from Thiem on what was a rare approach to the net at that stage of the match saw him convert on his first break point in the seventh game for a 4-3 advantage.
Thiem served for the set at 5-4 but Zverev was not going to go away. In a game that featured a series of outstanding rallies that brought the crowd to life, he had a break point on two occasions.
A tennis player extends his racquet out to hit a forehand return at the Australian Open.
Photo: Alexander Zverev was on top early when he claimed the first set. (AP: Lee Jin-man)
Zverev could not capitalise, however, and Thiem survived to level the contest at a set apiece.
A light failure inside Rod Laver Arena caused a lengthy delay following the opening game of the third set, which soon took a twist when Thiem broke to lead 2-1.
He cranked up his superb single-handed backhand to finish off the third game, the speed of his passing shot leaving Zverev flat footed at the net.
Thiem’s backhand — and some clutch serving — helped him stare down a break point to hold and go up 3-1, as the match edged closer to the two-hour mark.
But the backhand went missing when Zverev levelled the set at 3-3, with Thiem netting a return on the third break point he coughed up.
Zverev’s emotions almost boiled over when he was serving in the ninth game. He received a code violation for a verbal outburst, however regained composure and sent down the second of two straight aces to hold at 5-4.
Thiem had his back to the wall in the following game, as he twice gave up set points before serving his way out of danger.
The combatants each won their next service games to force a tiebreak, which Thiem clinched with a stunning crosscourt backhand to lead two sets to one.
The fourth set saw both Thiem and Zverev solid on serve and neither conceded a break point, as play continued on to another tiebreak.
Thiem got on top to lead 3-0 early in the breaker and he then enjoyed three match points at 6-3, with the first saved by Zverev on his serve.
A dramatic 14-shot rally followed as Zverev desperately tried to stay in the match, but Thiem proved triumphant when he pulled off a forehand volley winner at the net.