Dominic Thiem conjured a dazzling display of attacking tennis to defeat world No.1 Rafael Nadal 7-6(3) 7-6(4) 4-6 7-6(6) to surge into his maiden Australian Open semifinal.
The Austrian managed to topple the top seed at a major for the first time in six attempts, unleashing 65 winners to halt a spirited fightback from the Spaniard.
Thiem overturned a 4-9 record against the 19-time Grand Slam champion to book a final-four showdown with Alexander Zverev.
“All the match was on a very good level, we both were in great form, that’s what can happen with two players in that form,” declared a delighted Thiem, who was grateful for the slight netcord in the final tiebreak to clinch his final match point.
“I felt I was lucky in the right situations. It’s necessary as he’s one of the greatest of all times, one of the biggest legends in this sport, so you need a little luck to beat him.”
Prior to the match, British doubles star Jamie Murray tweeted, “Rafa is a joke. The Dominator is a joke. This match will be brutal. Who’s gonna be last man standing?”
It was a spot-on summary, and there was a gladiatorial feel when these two exceptional talents took to the court. The rallies were indeed brutal.
Thiem knew he had to employ an aggressive game plan. Rewind to the ATP Finals last November, and the Austrian blasted past Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic with full-throttle tennis played with relentless acceleration.
It seemed the 26-year-old was taking that script onto Rod Laver Arena, scorching any short ball from the Spaniard.
The crowd sensed Thiem was a genuine danger for Nadal’s pursuit of a second Australian Open title, amping up their noise for the underdog.
From nowhere, Nadal posted 0-40 and dinked an outrageous lob towards the baseline for a break to love. The top seed was on the verge of the opener with an ace at 5-3 chalking up set point, but Thiem nailed another fizzing forehand to stay in contention.
The 26-year-old switched the momentum with a backhand arrowed from shoulder height cross-court. He didn’t convert that opportunity, but at the third chance Rafa relented, and Thiem was rewarded for his perseverance.
A tiebreak was eventually required, and the fifth seed rallied from 0-2 down to combine a devastating concoction of shots. A booming forehand, his 20th winner of an exquisite set, sent Thiem ahead.
The 2009 champion responded by breaking to love at 2-2 in the second set. Nadal was pushed to the limit in physical exertion by taking an 18-shot rally, immediately followed by a 19-shot rally to consolidate his lead.
However, a time violation on serve at 4-2 appeared to unsettle Nadal, the 33-year-old losing his radar in contrast to Thiem’s scintillating striking. The world No.5 accumulated eight points in a row to boost three straight games.
Nadal erased set point and earned a second tiebreak. Thiem saw a 4-0 lead vanish, before two smart forehands posted a commanding two-sets lead on the scoreboard, and giving the Spaniard a mountain to climb.
Nadal, finalist at Melbourne Park last January, last successfully won from two sets down at Wimbledon 2007 facing Mikhail Youzhny.
Having secured a 5-4 advantage in the third, Nadal sensed his chance to ramp up the pressure. Two lung-bursting rallies totted up 0-30 before the world No.1 punished tentative play to extend the contest.
The celebration was wild, featuring a few hopping squats and trademark arm thrusts, the top seed proved how much his title mission in Melbourne meant to him.
The tide looked to have turned but with outstanding offence and exceptional defence, Thiem broke for 2-1 in the fourth as the groundstrokes kept on pasting the tramlines.
“We already had this epic match in New York,” reflected Thiem, on their US Open 2018 quarterfinal classic, when he had a similar commanding lead before narrowly falling in a fifth-set breaker.
“I just wanted to stay in the match. I got the break and it came to 5-4, which was a special situation for me, serving for the match against Rafa, for my first semifinal at the Australian Open. It was such a mentally tough situation, I couldn’t handle it!
“It was a little ‘demons in the head’ like Roger (Federer) said,” added the 26-year-old, facing the daunting task of serving out the match.
“Rafa made it so tough, he got it to five-all and the match starts at zero again.
“But I managed to turn it around again … that’s tennis, you have to deal with these big situations and I’m very happy.”
It boiled down to a third tiebreak and Thiem rocketed 5-2 in front with a spectacular stop volley, before winning a point after having tumbled to the ground.
The top seed clawed back the deficit, but after a backhand pass clipped the net tape, it was Thiem’s time.
Nadal bemoaned not being clinical enough, but was quick to admit his opponent was superior on the night.
“I think he's playing great. He's playing with a lot of energy, aggressive, determination. Even from difficult positions, he was able to produce amazing shots,” said Nadal.
“I honestly didn't play a bad match. My attitude was great, I think, during the whole match. Good, positive, fighting spirit all the time, giving me more chances.
“Of course, I am sad. I lost an opportunity to be in the semifinals of another Grand Slam. But I lost against a great opponent. And he deserve it, too. Well done for him.”