Thiem topples Zverev to reach first AO final

  • Dan Imhoff

A 1960s Neil Diamond classic often sung on top note in Austrian après ski bars has helped lift Dominic Thiem past a resilient Alexander Zverev to reach his maiden Australian Open final.

Proving his four-hour-plus heroics against world No.1 Rafael Nadal were no flash in the pan at a slam, the fifth seed prevailed 3-6 6-4 7-6(3) 7-6(4) to set a showdown with seven-time champion Novak Djokovic.

MORE: Gutted Zverev rues missed chances

In a match played under bleak but humid conditions for the first four games, but finished under the roof at Rod Laver Arena, it was seventh seed Zverev who served lights out to take the opening set.

“It’s not easy, I was playing for four hours 10 [minutes] against Rafa, who’s the most intense guy on tour, almost every rally,” Thiem said.

“I was in bed about 5am two days ago so wasn’t easy to recover, but once the adrenalin kicked in, I still had some troubles in the first set. Both our first semifinal here – it was a tough start for me.”

No sooner had Thiem clocked his third ace of the match to split sets than a row of lights momentarily went out in the upper reaches of the arena early in the third.

It prompted a five-minute delay and time for Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline to echo through the stands as the crowd – including Thiem’s mother Karen – rose as one with hands raised to belt out the chorus.

It drew a grin of familiarity from the Austrian who later admitted it reminded him of skiing trips to the mountains back home.

“I like that song. I felt like I was in an Austrian skiing holiday,” he said. 

“They play this song all the time. It loosened me up a little bit.”

There was a shout of “Austria, Austria, Austria, Oi, Oi, Oi” – an adaptation of the Australian battle-cry from one boisterous fan – drawing laughter from the crowd.

Lights back on, it was Thiem’s turn to play lights out as he ripped a backhand passing shot to secure the first break of the third set.

Not to be outdone, Zverev won an extraordinary exchange, running down a diving backhand volley from Thiem to slot the backhand winner and bring the crowd to its feet.

It became a crucial hold as he prevented a double break and swung momentum firmly back in his favour, winning three straight games.

Fortune favoured the brave as Thiem saved two set points on serve at 4-5 – the first on a gutsy backhand down the line, the second into the same corner on a whipping forehand winner.

As the clock ticked over the two-and-a-half-hour mark, the 26-year-old began to look increasingly concerned in the direction of his box, pointing to his stomach.

“I was feeling nervous; I was putting so much energy, so much effort in, my stomach was not ready for that,” Thiem said. 

“I think it was rebelling a little bit. Sometimes happens when it’s a really close, really tough match.”

There was nothing wrong with the 26-year-old’s opening point of the tiebreak as he pulled off an exquisite half-volley winner.

Sensing his moment, the Austrian unleashed a forehand down the line to bring up three set points and took a pivotal two-sets-to-one lead on a cross-court backhand winner.

Twice Zverev was forced to serve to stay in the match and after three and a half hours the pair entered their second tiebreak.

And for the fifth straight tiebreak at this Australian Open, Thiem stood up when it mattered.

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Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev shake hands after the semifinal

A winning volley booked his 11th showdown with second seed Djokovic, his third appearance in a Grand Slam final.

The Serbian leads their ledger 6-4, but succumbed in their past two meetings – at the ATP Finals and the Roland Garros semifinals last year.

“It’s unbelievable, twice in Roland Garros finals, twice facing Rafa,” Thiem said. 

“Now facing Novak here, he’s the king of Australia so I’m always facing the kings of the Grand Slams in these finals.

“I’ll try everything I can to win … if I walk off the court a loser in two days I have to be patient, trust the process.”

Edging ever closer to a maiden slam trophy, Thiem is already a master of perseverance. His moment could well arrive on this arena in two days’ time.