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Tennis Journalist Alix Ramsay Reviews The Dominic Thiem Match Against Sascha Zverev From The 2020 Aussie Open

Somewhere in a posh hotel in Melbourne, a defending champion was enjoying the evening. Sipping his gluten-free, plant-based refreshment as he watched the TV, a smile played about his lips. “So, this is all you’ve got, is it?” he murmured quietly.

Certainly, the sight of Dominic Thiem and Sascha Zverev tiptoeing nervously towards the Australian Open final then stopping, looking terrified and running away again will have given Novak Djokovic no cause for concern.

He knew that both men are excellent players but he also knew that both men were in unknown territory: Zverev had never been in a grand slam semi-final before while Thiem has never got beyond the quarter-final of any major other than the French Open before (although he has reached the French final twice). And there was Djokovic, the seven-time Australian champion and 16-time grand slam champion, waiting for the winner of Friday’s match in the final. Djokovic had been here many, many times and experience counts at this stage of a grand slam.

In the end, it was Thiem who emerged victorious 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 7-6 to book his appointment with the Serb but as far as Djokovic was concerned, it did not matter. This is his grand slam – he has made it so in seven previous finals – and no one else would be allowed to anywhere near the trophy.

At least Thiem and Zverev were in it together. Dressed alike in their pastel adidas kit with matching headbands, the two men are friends off the court and friendly rivals on it. They have also both been through some lifechanging moments of late, moments that have changed their attitude to their day jobs.

Over the Christmas break, Zverev went on an exhibition tour of south America with Roger Federer and got a taste of what it is like to perform in front of 40,000 adoring fans. He also had surgery to correct his poor eyesight (gone are the glasses and the contact lenses) and he got himself a new girlfriend. The on-court results were not immediate (he had a lousy time at the ATP Cup) but after practicing to within an inch of his life in the week before the Open, his form came flooding back.

After a miserable 12 months in 2019, a year spent fighting with his former manager, struggling to make his coaching relationship with Ivan Lendl work – he couldn’t – and failing miserably to live up to the promise he showed a couple of years ago, Christmas was everything he could have hoped it would be: new eyes, a new girl (her name is Brenda and she is a model) and a new belief that he was ready to prove himself on the big stage. This was going to be a good year.

Thiem, meanwhile, was also sorting out his private and professional life. He split up with Kiki Mladenovic after a two-year romance (conducting a long-distance relationship as they both circled the globe in opposite directions was proving too complicated), he hired Thomas Muster to join his coaching team…and then split up with him again after two weeks and a couple of rounds at the Open and he did something untoward with his hair.

The tall, quiet Austrian is not made for frosted tips but ever since he bust up with Kiki, he has been sporting blond highlights in his otherwise sensible, brown, short back and sides. Or as m’colleague from the Press Association put it: “It’s typical break-up hair”. She is a sensible lass, is Eleanor.

Two men, then, who were happy off the court and who were delighted with how they were performing on it. The only slight problem was the prize on offer at the end of the night: that ticket to the Australian Open final. The sheer weight of the opportunity seemed to shackle both men at the most inopportune of moments.

And if they were nervous to begin with, the rain delay as the roof was closed after 20 minutes and three and a bit games followed by the 10-minute delay when some of the flood lights went out at the start of the third set did not help matters.

In parts, they both played well but seldom at the same time. Then, when one man seemed to be getting the upper hand, he would flap and flub and lose the momentum again. Nine breaks of serve, 73 unforced errors and 85 winners between them told its own story. Yet, in the end, experience counted for much – this was Thiem’s fifth major semi-final (he has reached the last four or better for the last four years at Roland Garros) and he knew how this felt. Zverev didn’t.

“I think Sascha had a horrible ATP Cup,” Thiem said of his friend and beaten rival, “and I know he worked so hard, he practiced so much, probably the most of any player in the preparation week.

“He is a great player, we all know since a very long time. Also, I think this tournament is a big breakthrough for him, his first semi-finals. To be honest, both of us could have won this today. Maybe it was a little bit experience, a little bit something else that made the difference. He’s still only 22 so we don’t have to wait long until he is through to his first grand slam final.”

As for his own chances on Sunday, Thiem appeared to know his place. The older men, the Djokovics and Nadals, maybe be beatable but seldom in a grand slam final; Thiem knows this from experience.

“I was twice in the Roland Garros finals,” Thiem said. “Twice I was facing Rafa who won the tournament back then 10 times, last year 11 times. And now I’m facing Novak here. He’s the king of Australia, he’s won the title seven times, more than any other man. So, I’m always facing the kings of these grand slams in the final.

“But I try my best and I try everything to win and that’s exactly what Novak said: if I walk off the court in two days as a loser then I have to be patient, I still have to trust the process. But I’m looking forward to it a lot. I try to regenerate perfectly now and give everything I have on Sunday.”

Meanwhile, in that hotel room in the centre of Melbourne, a defending champion drained his glass, turned off the TV and went to bed. He would have no trouble nodding off on Friday night. He had already seen enough.


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