The Major Takeaway—Mentally tough Thiem earns gritty win over Kyrgios

The Major Takeaway—Mentally tough Thiem earns gritty win over Kyrgios

The Austrian showcased how the sport's mental aspect is just as important as the physical in his classic comeback victory over Nick Kyrgios.

The Australian Open will lose something without Nick Kyrgios, and without the fans for the next five days. But Dominic Thiem will still be there, and he may be better for the experience he had in John Cain Arena on Friday night. 

“Honestly, I was already almost on my way home,” Thiem said after his 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win over Kyrgios at Melbourne Park on Friday. 

By the end of the second set, Thiem was playing like he would rather be anywhere else in the world. He had tried not to poke the bear on the other side of the net, or his thousands of backers in John Cain Arena. He had tried not to be distracted by the pre-lockdown party that had broken out in the stands all around him. But instead of exuding calm, Thiem had looked closer to catatonic as he shuffled, slump-shouldered and with his eyes fixed on the ground in front of him, from one side of the court to the other. 

Up to that point, the match had gone the way Thiem might have imagined it in one of his worst nightmares. Instead of keeping Kyrgios and the crowd at bay in the early going, he had been broken in the very first game. He had found himself, in his first full match with Kyrgios, unable to read the Aussie’s serve, let alone return it effectively. This consummate grinder had looked decidedly second-best in the rallies, too. Kyrgios had pulled out all of his usual stops—the tweeners, the crazy bomb second serves, the drop shots—and they had all worked. When he threw in one more, an underhand serve, at set point in the second set, Thiem simply walked to the sideline for the changeover and sat down.

More of the same appeared to be in store for him when he got back up. In the first game of the third set, Kyrgios lasered two backhand return winners into the corners to reach 15-40. The crowd was on its feet, and back in the ESPN booth in Bristol, Conn., Patrick McEnroe said, with some disbelief in his voice, “The finish line is in sight!” 

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The problem was, if McEnroe could see it from Bristol, Kyrgios could see it, too. On the next point, Thiem threw in a half-hearted forehand approach and jogged toward the net, as if he was trying to get the point, the game, and the whole horrible night over with as quickly as possible. Kyrgios had a good look at another backhand, and a good swing at it, too. But he fired it just wide. On the second break point, Kyrgios, looking a little tight for the first time, missed another backhand into the net. The fans exhaled and sat back down. No one in the arena, it seems likely, realized that Kyrgios had just missed his last best chance to win the match.

Everything turned from there. Thiem broke for the first time in the next game. Kyrgios’s drop shots and underhand serves began to find the net, and the crowd that he had urged to make more noise earlier started to distract him. Serving at 4-4 in the fourth set, Kyrgios fought to reach game point, only to give it back by trying a maximum-degree-of-difficulty, between-the-legs half-volley that ended up in the bottom of the net. A normal volley would have put him one game from the match; instead he was broken and was forced into a fifth.

In the deciding set, Thiem, who had finally started to read Kyrgios’ serve, broke with a deep return. For the first time all night, he took his eyes off the court, raised his head, and threw a silent fist-pump at his camp. He had weathered the storm, and his keep-calm-and-carry-on strategy had paid off.

“It was an epic match,” said Thiem, who finished with five more winners (57 to 52) than Kyrgios. “Huge effort from both players actually. I think it’s one of the tougher challenges out there in tennis to face Nick when he’s on fire on his favorite court with an unbelievable atmosphere and the crowd behind him. So I’m super proud how I got through it.”

Kyrgios also said he was “super proud” of his own effort, and he zeroed in on the crucial moments of the match with his usual matter-of-fact honesty.

“If I take one of those break points in the third set early I think the match is over in an hour and 45 minutes,” Kyrgios said. “I could definitely feel he was going away towards the end of the second.”

“He was a bit rattled, and I played a heck of a first game in the third set. I just missed a couple of balls by really nothing, you know. Maybe if I played more last year, maybe if I trained more, I make those balls, I'm not too sure. But in that moment I didn't make it, and then he just steadied the ship a little bit.”

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Kyrgios said he was happy for Thiem, and that he was rewarded for his hard work, for grinding the way Kyrgios has never loved to grind.

“He played too good,” Kyrgios said. “I'll be positive, I'll move on to tomorrow, and then there's more blessings in front of me. It's just a tennis match.”

It may also be the last one that he plays for a while.

“I'm not going to force myself to go to these places and quarantine for a week and then play with no crowd,” Kyrgios said. “That's just not me. I just don't think it’s right. I’m not gonna force myself to play.”

Kyrgios and his faithful gave us a taste of two things we’ve been missing, and that we’ll probably continue to miss in 2021: (1) Fan energy, and (2) Kyrgios’ unique ability to juice it. There have been more globally popular players, but few, if any, have been able to get tennis fans to jump up, high-five, dance in front of their seats, fist-pump and roar the way Kyrgios did with the spectators in John Cain Arena last night. We’re past the point of wondering whether he can perform this way on a regular basis, so we’ll just have to enjoy it while it lasts.

The tournament will lose something when Kyrgios vanishes, and the Aussie fans go away for the next five days. But Dominic Thiem will still be there, and he may be better for the experience.