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Tennis News • They Don’t Call Them SLAMS For Nothing • Bounce…

By Alix Ramsay

A dicky tummy, a vigilant umpire and 11,000 people demanding an upset – what more does it take to beat Novak Djokovic at Melbourne Park? If anyone has the answer, please pop it on a postcard and send it to Dominic Thiem because he is damned if he knows.

For a couple of sets and around a couple of hours, the Austrian thought he was on the way to his first grand slam title but then “Lazarus” Djokovic lifted himself from his torpor and came back to win the Australian Open in five sets.

But, then again, he has done it so many times before and against men far more experienced in major finals than Thiem. He looks down and out, he looks to be at death’s door and then suddenly and miraculously he recovers. Revived, rejuvenated and refreshed, Djokovic won his eighth Australian trophy 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a minute under four hours.

The new world No.1 seems utterly unstoppable in Australia and despite suffering from some kind of stomach ailment and despite coming closer to defeat in the final than ever before, the soon-to-be-crowned champion was not to be denied his record-breaking win. He is the only man in the Open Era to win a grand slam title in three different decades; with Sunday’s victory, he now has 17 of them and it all began here in 2008.

Not that it was easy. His troubles started at the start of the second set when his stranglehold on the match loosened as he allowed his attention to wander. By the time he spotted the danger, he was a break down and Thiem was taking charge. That was when Damien Dumusois took his turn in the spotlight.

As is his wont when he is under pressure, Djokovic started to take longer and longer in his service preparation. He had just got back on level terms at 4-4 in the second set and was now serving. But as he bounced the ball again and again, he overran the shot clock and earned himself a warning. And then he did it again at the start of the next point and was docked a first serve. That eventually cost him his serve and he was furious.

As he walked to his chair, Djokovic patted Dumusois on the foot and gave him a piece of his mind.

“Great job,” he said. “Great job, especially on that second one. You’ve made yourself famous. Well done.”

For the next 50 minutes, he was in total disarray. Thiem ran away with the third set while Djokovic looked slow and flat. He called for the doctor during the set, he left the court with the doctor at the end of the set and he gulped down energy gels and drinks, chomped on dates and struggled to breathe throughout. He was clearly in some sort of trouble but no one was quite sure what ailed him. Whatever it was, the change in momentum from the opening set was as dramatic as it was swift.

As they began, Thiem was still setting up base camp – unpacking the tent and reading the instructions for the primus stove – while Djokovic was sprinting up the foothills and taking the early lead at 3-0. That looked ominous.

It is Thiem’s misfortune to be an exceptional player in an age of legends. He is not alone in this, mind you: since Andre Agassi won his last Australian Open title in 2003, only two men not named Djokovic, Federer or Nadal have won the title in Melbourne (Marat Safin in 2005 and Stan Wawrinka in 2014, should you be wondering).

Thiem is a tremendous athlete, he is as strong as an ox and on a clay court, he the second best player in the world. Alas, the best player in the world on the red stuff is the same bloke who has stopped him winning the Roland Garros title these past couple of years. As for the hard courts, the Austrian has established himself a true contender on the surface in the past 12 months – and here he was facing the man who has owned Melbourne Park in recent memory.

No matter, Thiem is nothing if not stoic and, slowly but surely, he settled his nerves, remembered his game plan and began to inch his way back. It was backbreaking work, but every point won was a step forward. It was not enough to win the first set but Thiem was plotting his own route up the mountain.

Yet playing Djokovic, particularly in a grand slam tournament, is not like playing any other player. There you are, sitting pretty at 40-15 and thinking about a fairly simply hold of serve but on the other side of the net, Djokovic is thinking: ‘just two decent returns away from deuce and then I put your important little parts in the vice and start turning the handle…’

Sure enough, when Thiem broke back in the opening set, the defending champion went into lockdown. Nothing was going to get past him and, forcing the issue with every rally, he piled the pressure on his Austrian foe until he cracked as he served to stay in the set. First blood to Djokovic.

For all his fame and fortune and for all his dominance on court, Djokovic is a remarkably thin-skinned champion. He is desperate to be loved like Federer and Nadal and he cannot bear it when the crowd does not respond to him as they do to them. And from the moment Thiem started to fight back in the first set, the crowd made its feelings known: the regular band of Serbs in the upper tiers were loud and patriotic but everyone else – about 70 per cent of the throng – was behind Thiem.

Rattled by the crowd – at one point, he turned to the stands and told everyone to ‘shut the f**k up’ – and distracted by anything from his racket strings to a cough from the cheap seats, Djokovic’s level dropped, Thiem’s confidence grew and we had a match on our hands.

While Djokovic went through his mental meltdowns and medical emergencies, Thiem did everything his team could have asked of him: he played to his strengths, he did not allow himself to be distracted by events on the other side of the net and he established a two set to one lead. He was one set away from giving the crowd what the majority of them wanted. What he was to learn is that that is when Djokovic is at his most dangerous.

Back to something resembling his best, Djokovic repelled break point chances in the fourth set and took charge early in the fifth. From there, he never let Thiem near him. Lazarus had lived to lift another trophy. Lazarus has made a career out of doing just that.

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