Thiem takes time, but solves Kukushkin puzzle

  • Reem Abulleil

If Dominic Thiem had any residual demons to banish from his narrow five-set defeat to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final last year, he did well to conquer them with a hard-fought opening round victory over Mikhail Kukushkin on Monday.

Back on Rod Laver Arena – the site of that heartbreaking defeat – the third-seeded Thiem had to save a set point in the first set, and rallied back from a break down in the second, before posting a 7-6(2) 6-2 6-3 result against Kukushkin. The 27-year-old next meets German lefty Dominik Koepfer, who defeated lucky loser Hugo Dellien. 

“He’s very experienced, he played fourth round here (in 2012), and I think he likes the conditions, it’s way faster,” Thiem said on court after the win. “First set was super-challenging, I was a break down, it was a bit of a key point. In general I’m very happy to be back and to have a successful first round.”

Thiem’s loss to Djokovic 12 months ago after holding a two-sets-to-one lead against the world No.1 sat with him for several months.

“I was at home, not going out anywhere and had a lot of time to think and to reflect, not only on the Australian Open final but on my whole career, and many doubts were coming up: if I ever get that chance again, if I ever will get that close again in the Australian Open final, and that was not easy,” Thiem told the Guardian.

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Thiem was back on the court where he lost last year's final to Novak Djokovic

The Austrian did get another chance though, and this time, he wouldn’t let it slip away, as he captured his maiden Grand Slam title at the US Open last September. He’s now aiming to become just the sixth man in the Open Era to win the Australian Open title after triumphing in New York in the previous season.

Thiem didn’t get too much competitive action in the build-up to Australian Open 2021. He faced Rafael Nadal in an exhibition in Adelaide, then had a short ATP Cup campaign that saw him lose to Matteo Berrettini in the tie against eventual runners-up Italy before claiming a win over Benoit Paire, who retired one set into Austria’s contest with France.

That could explain why it took Thiem nearly 90 minutes before he figured out a way to solve the Kukushkin puzzle. Thiem hadn’t faced the veteran Kazakh before, and had to work hard to navigate past him.

“In general I’m very happy to be back and to have a successful first round.”
Dominic Thiem

Kukushkin, ranked 90 in the world, entered the match having lost in 11 of his 12 previous first-round appearances at Melbourne Park. But on Monday, the 33-year-old showcased his former top-40 credentials as he troubled Thiem with his impressive ability to change the direction of the ball on demand during gruelling, marathon exchanges.

Thiem drew first blood to lead 4-2, but relinquished his advantage as Kukushkin broke him twice to move up 6-5 and serve for the opening set. In a game that lasted nearly 10 minutes, Thiem saved a set point before converting on his third break point opportunity to take the contest into a tiebreak.

A signature down-the-line backhand winner from Thiem helped him craft a 4-2 lead in the breaker, and he wrapped up an error-strewn opening set on the 72-minute mark.

The tug of war resumed in the second set, and it was Kukushkin who made the first move, breaking for 2-0 with a smooth drop shot winner. Thiem quickly wiped the deficit though and ran away with the next six games to scoop the second set, then amped up the pressure to march into the round of 64 for a sixth consecutive year in Melbourne.

"Definitely I felt nerves because it was a long time until the slam, more than three weeks from when we arrived to Adelaide. It was not easy. It was amazing that we could practice, but three weeks is a long time, and if you're unlucky or especially me, if I practice somehow too many days in a row, I start to play worse again instead of better. So I really had to find the right balance," Thiem said in his press conference.

"I also faced an opponent today who is tough to play, especially in these conditions. I'm happy how I did it and how I came through."