Thiem's education continues as Djokovic wins an eighth Australian Open

Thiem's education continues as Djokovic wins an eighth Australian Open

The 26-year-old Austrian led the Serb by two sets to one, but couldn't hold on to win his maiden major title.

How it happened: A set-by-by breakdown of Djokovic's five-set win over Thiem
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Flink: Thiem made his move in Australian Open final, but Djokovic held steady

MELBOURNE—A major benefit of the lengthy dominance of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer is that anyone who wishes to overcome these three has had a long time to study them. 

As tonight’s Australian Open final revealed, the studious Dominic Thiem is grateful for all he’s learned from that accomplished trio. 

“These guys brought tennis to a complete new level,” said Thiem. “They also brought me probably to a much better level.”

For long periods of tonight’s match, the 26-year-old Thiem was a master student as he showed off elements of each of the three greats: the crisp footwork of Djokovic; the laser focus of Nadal; the sparkling shot-making of Federer.

But it wasn’t enough. The education of Dominic Thiem will continue. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic remained the Dean of Melbourne, taking four hours to win his 17th Grand Slam singles title, 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.


Djokovic’s record-extending eighth Australian Open men’s singles title marked the first time he had won a Grand Slam final when trailing two sets to one. 

“He was a better player,” said Djokovic. “Probably one point and one shot separated us tonight. Could have gone another way.”

If not as memorable or dramatic as Djokovic’s Wimbledon final win last summer over Federer, this one too revealed much of the superb Serb's genius. A year ago in Melbourne, he’d been impeccable in dispatching Nadal to win the title. This time, there were numerous stumbles, including an opponent who frequently lacerated the ball, troubling interactions with the crowd and the chair umpire, health issues, Djokovic light years from his zone.

When I asked him to describe this evening’s effort, he began with one word: “Turbulent.” 

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Djokovic started off sharp, holding at 15 and immediately breaking Thiem. Exceptional pace, depth and movement marked the opening stages of Djokovic in the first set. Could he compel Thiem to go for too much and, in time, unravel?

Through his first three service games, Thiem labored to hold. But he caught up to 4-all. At one point, Djokovic yelled at the crowd, which had made noise during a rally, to “shut the **** up.”  Still, he would win that opening set, 6-4.

Nothing rattled Thiem as the second set began. Aided by a pair of Djokovic double-faults, he broke at 1-all and went up 4-2, only to have Djokovic hold and break to level the set. 

Then things took a major twist. Serving at 4-all, 15-all, Djokovic double-faulted. On the next point, he was given a time violation warning, losing the point with a netted backhand drop shot. At 15-40, another time violation—which in this case cost Djokovic a serve. Distraught, Djokovic flagged a forehand long. 

On the changeover, Djokovic tapped chair umpire Damien Dumusois’ left foot, before saying, “Great job.  You made yourself famous, well done. Mission accomplished.” 

Said Djokovic after the match, “I want to thank him for not giving me a warning for touching him.” 

Thiem went on to win the set, go up 4-0 in the third and eventually take a two-sets-to-one lead. Throughout this dominant period, he commanded the court from all corners, a captivating flow of forehands and backhands repeatedly crackling off Thiem’s racquet.  

The power and depth Djokovic had shown in the opening five games of the match had significantly diminished. Added to this was that Djokovic frequently backed off attacking short balls and coming to net. No way did he want to get scorched by a Thiem passing shot. In many ways, Thiem’s severe physicality evoked the ways Stan Wawrinka had beaten Djokovic on the way to three Slam titles—but with an even bigger forehand.

But there had also been a curious drop in Djokovic’s energy, an occurrence he struggled to understand even after the match. 

“I was trying to keep myself alive mentally as well and emotionally because it was disappointing in a way from my side to actually feel this way,” said Djokovic. “I was a bit shocked that I did feel that way because everything was fine before the match.”


As the fourth set began, it was hard to determine which way the momentum would go. While Thiem was in the lead, for him to be one set away from a Slam title was a brave new world. 

With Djokovic serving at 1-all in the fourth, Thiem reached 30-40. But Djokovic fought it off with a bold serve and volley, firmly sticking a backhand volley down the line that opened up the court an easy winner. Crisis averted, Djokovic’s resurgence was less electric and more methodical, a toothpick by toothpick matter of concentration and solid, steady play. 

Serving at 3-4, 15-love, Thiem was netted a makeable forehand drop volley. At 15-30, a double-fault. In the fourth set, Thiem would only win 22 percent of the points on his second serve. Soon enough, Djokovic broke and held at love, closing out the set with an ace.   

It is amazing how a slight swing in each player’s game can alter the entire flow of the match. As the fifth set began, the terms had changed. Amid the highest stakes of his career, it was hard for Thiem to rattle off the bold shots he’d played so well throughout the second and third sets. Serving at 1-1, 30-15, Thiem misfired on three consecutive forehands and was broken. In the next game, Djokovic fought off two break points, one again with a sharp serve and volley. From there, Djokovic aggregated points, carefully and steadily. 

Thiem had blasted from the skies. But over the last two sets, Djokovic had dug his way out of a ditch. Serving at 5-4, 40-15, Djokovic kept the ball deep enough to extract a forehand error from Thiem on the eighth shot of the rally.

Less than an hour after the match, at 12:40 A.M., Thiem spoke to the press.

“I'm happy I can compete with these guys on the best level,” he said. “I really hope also that I win my maiden Slam when they're still around, because it just counts more.”

As much as Thiem could console himself with his effort, there was a sad, binary reality to what took place soon after the two shared a handshake and a hug—as always happens once these finals are over. There had been the polite awards ceremony, the two combatants celebrated, albeit the victor clearly more than the loser. 

Said Thiem, “I just feel a lot of emptiness now.”   


Then there was Djokovic. Carrying the champion’s trophy like a newborn child, he walked with his shoes off, through one larger circle after another—team, family, friends, on through the hallways of the tournament, accompanied by a phalanx of security guards, celebrated from a safe distance by sponsors and other notables, whisked through one TV interview to another, signing autographs, cheered at by fans, many waving Serbian flags. 

At 2:00 a.m., Djokovic entered his press conference. The trophy sat two feet to his right. a packed room awaited his final comments. For a brief moment, all the immediacy of what Djokovic had accomplished vanished as he trekked back 20 years and nearly 10,000 miles, back to his childhood. 

“My upbringing was in Serbia during several wars during '90s, difficult time, embargo in our country where we had to wait in line for bread, milk, water, some basic things in life,” he said. “These kind of things make you stronger and hungrier for success I think in whatever you choose to do.

“That probably has been my foundation, the very fact that I came from literally nothing and difficult life circumstances together with my family and with my people. Going back to that, reminding myself where I came from always inspires me, motivates me to push even harder.”