How it happened: A set-by-by breakdown of Djokovic's five-set win over Thiem
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Midway through his harrowing five set, final round skirmish with Dominic Thiem on a cool evening in Rod Laver Arena, Novak Djokovic’s bid for an eighth Australian Open singles title and a 17th major crown looked bleak. The 32-year-old Serbian was suffering through a mysterious physical crisis after securing the first set and reaching 4-4 in the second, losing six games in a row thereafter, taking medical timeouts after dropping the second and third sets, and almost advertising his discomfort. Recouping from two sets to one down in a major final for the first time in his career seemed out of the question. His vaunted mobility and court coverage was severely impaired. He was way out of sorts and apparently out of ideas and options.
But Djokovic flooded himself with fluids, ate some bananas and other food at the changeovers to recover his strength, and kept his head barely above water. In the end, Djokovic toppled his big hitting adversary 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4. It was his fifth consecutive victory in the final of a Grand Slam tournament. He moved to within two majors of Rafael Nadal and put himself only three behind the leader Roger Federer. Most importantly, Djokovic defined himself singularly as the ultimate professional, finding a way to survive when his body was betraying him, working his way back into and through a match that was swiftly slipping from his grasp. Djokovic has had much better days on auspicious occasions, but he prevailed in this memorable confrontation with Thiem by reinventing himself in the latter stages and relying on the strengths that have so often carried him across the finish line—the incomparable return of serve, a brand of defense that no one else can play, a serve that especially nowadays is highly underrated, and a steely resolve that few in his profession have ever matched.
In the early stages of the final, Djokovic came out of the blocks with typical clarity of mind while Thiem could not find his range or prevent his opponent from controlling the proceedings with uncanny ball control and precision. All through the first set, Djokovic hardly missed a return and he had Thiem on a string in the baseline exchanges. Djokovic served a pair of aces to close out an easy hold at 15 for 1-0, rallied from 40-15 down to break Thiem in the second game, and held at the cost of only one point in the third game after putting every first serve in play.
Djokovic was absolutely masterful in building his lead. Moreover, he nearly broke the set wide open. Thiem held from deuce in the fourth game but Djokovic advanced to 4-1 at 15, once more refusing to miss a first serve. Djokovic took Thiem to two deuces in the sixth game but was denied an insurance break by the obstinacy of the Austrian. Now Thiem made his move. Although Djokovic was flawless on first serves again in the seventh game, he was broken at 15 on three unprovoked mistakes combined with one outright winner from Thiem. The No. 5 seed saved a break point to reach 4-4 in a set that could easily have gone to Djokovic much sooner. But after another easy hold from the Serbian in the ninth game, Djokovic broke again, sealing a long game on a double fault from Thiem at set point down. Djokovic had done it the hard way, taking the set 6-4.
Djokovic is the finest front runner in tennis. No one has a better record in the men’s game after securing the opening set. Longtime followers expected him to start swinging freely and making life miserable for Thiem, who had labored for more than four hours to beat Rafael Nadal and had then needed three hours and forty two minutes to subdue a determined Alexander Zverev. Those back to back, four set triumphs had consumed nearly eight hours combined and had taken an awful lot out of the 26-year-old.
But Thiem has become an increasingly resilient competitor. Djokovic opened the second set confidently by holding at love, but Thiem added velocity and depth to his ground strokes. He held at love with an ace, and then broke a surprisingly tense Djokovic in the third game as the Serbian inexplicably went for a 121 MPH second serve at break point down and sent it well long.
Thiem exploited that double fault from Djokovic to establish leads of 3-1 and 4-2. But his trademark backhand down the line was flagrantly misfiring. At break point down in the eighth game, he missed that shot to allow Djokovic back to 4-4. The No. 2 seed realized the significance of the ninth game, and opened it commandingly by outperforming Thiem in a 29 stroke rally. But Thiem laced a forehand winner down the line and then Djokovic double faulted. The umpire gave the Serbian a time warning before Djokovic sent a backhand drop shot into the net. Now he was given a second time warning, meaning he started the next point with a second serve. Clearly distracted and dismayed by the twin infractions, Djokovic missed wildly off the forehand to lose his serve.
At the changeover, an unmistakably perturbed Djokovic vented at the chair umpire. Thiem promptly served out the set, and Djokovic took his first medical timeout. The time away from the court seemed fruitless. With Djokovic’s game deteriorating considerably and his own flourishing, Thiem rolled to 4-0 in the third set. Djokovic’s alacrity was gone. He was not serving with anything like his usual power or placement, and his only chance was to go for winners early in points and hope he could regain strength.
Djokovic did hold serve a couple of times comfortably before garnering a break point when Thiem served for the set at 5-2. Thiem held on gamely to take the set 6-2, and Djokovic took another medical timeout. But having poured all of those liquids into his system, Djokovic was visibly quicker and was once more hitting the ball harder, serving more freely and moving much better on the run. At 1-1 in he fourth set, Djokovic daringly served-and-volleyed, punching a backhand first volley down the line, following with a crisp backhand volley into the clear. He held on with a fortunate winner off the net cord.
Djokovic granted Thiem only one point in his next two service games, taking a 4-3 lead. Serving in the eighth game, Thiem led 15-0 when he netted a routine forehand volley from on top of the net. Djokovic sensed his chance, making an outstanding forehand crosscourt return on the stretch, rushing Thiem into an error. Thiem double faulted to make it 15-40, saved a break point, but surrendered his serve with a forehand unforced error in response to a solid return down the middle from Djokovic.
Suddenly, Djokovic had another life. He was serving for the set at 5-3, and he played a magnificent game. Djokovic held at love with a backhand volley winner, an inside out forehand winner set up by a wide first serve, another first serve which elicited an errant return, and an ace down the T. Set to Djokovic 6-3. It was two sets all.
Thiem was probably stunned to be in a fifth set, while Djokovic was relieved to still be on court. But both players were ready to throw their souls into the remainder of the skirmish, knowing that one set would decide the winner of the 2020 Australian Open, realizing how close they were to securing an elusive prize. Neither Djokovic or Thiem was found wanting in a well played final set.
After Thiem went to 1-0 by holding at 15, Djokovic answered with a love hold, concluding that game with another telling first serve opening up an avenue for a forehand down the line winner. Thiem reached 30-15 in the third game but Djokovic coaxed three consecutive forehand errors from the Austrian to gain the break for 2-1. Thiem had poured in five of six first serves, but the ball was looking more like a grapefruit to Djokovic, who was reading almost every delivery extraordinarily well and timing his returns beautifully.
But Thiem was unyielding. He earned two break points in the fourth game, netting an inside out forehand on the first. But on the next one, Djokovic ingenuity was remarkable. He served-and-volleyed, getting excellent depth on the first volley. Thiem drove a backhand down the line passing shot long. After two deuces, a sharply focussed Djokovic held on for 3-1. Thiem was unbending. He held for 2-3 in a deuce game, making six of eight first serves. Unruffled, Djokovic held at love with an ace down the T for 4-2, and then had a break point for 5-2 that would have eased his task. But Thiem was fighting with quiet fury and not ceding ground. A service winner wiped away the break point. He followed with an ace. Djokovic missed a backhand down the line. Make it 4-3 for Djokovic. Here Thiem made another spirited stand, winning a 28 stroke rally on the first point of the eighth game, reaching 15-30 with a deep return that was too good.
Djokovic dealt commendably with this potentially dangerous situation. A first serve set up an aggressive forehand, and Thiem was forced into an error on the run. From 30-30, Djokovic moved purposefully to 5-3, drawing an errant backhand return with an impeccably placed serve into the corner, finishing the game with a body serve that elicited another errant return from Thiem.
And yet, Thiem did not drift into despondency. He held on at 15 in the ninth game, forcing Djokovic to go to the changeover and ponder that he was about to serve for the match. Soon Djokovic was down 0-15, but he swept four points in a row to seal the verdict, starting with an ace, followed by flawless play from the baseline. In precisely four hours, Djokovic raised his record in career finals at the majors to 17-9. He has become an increasingly effective big match player, winning 11 of his last 13 showdowns in title rounds at the premier events.
Meanwhile, Djokovic is now the first man and third player in the Open Era to collect major singles crowns in three different decades, joining Martina Navratilova (1978-90) and Serena Williams (1999-2017) in that elite category. He may not have known that when he realized this mission, but he recognized that he was closing in on Nadal and Federer again in the all-time race for supremacy at the majors.
When the third consecutive men’s five set final at the “Big Four” events ended, a dignified Thiem—beaten in his third Grand Slam final and still searching for an inevitable breakthrough—paid homage to the worthy victor. Thiem said, “Huge congrats to Novak,” he said. “ An amazing achievement. And also to your team. It is unreal what you are doing throughout all these years. You and two other guys have brought tennis to a completely new level. I am really proud and happy that I can compete in this period of tennis. I fell a little bit short today but I hope I can get revenge soon.. Well done.”
Djokovic took the microphone and was just as gracious.He said, “Congratulations to Dominic for an amazing tournament. It wasn’t meant to be tonight. It was tough luck and a tough match but you were very close to winning and you definitely have a lot more time in your career. I am sure you will get one of the trophies—more than one.”
Djokovic could have said the same about himself. Four the time being, however, he can celebrate his comeback triumph in Melbourne and be content that he is back at No. 1 in the world and primed to make this year one of the best in his illustrious career.