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Report: Rublev signals AO ambition with decisive win over Thiem

  • Dan Imhoff

Men's singles first round

Andrey Rublev has kept his cool amid searing conditions to see off former world No.3 Dominic Thiem in a high-profile first-round clash at the Australian Open.

In a seventh meeting between the pair, the fifth seed was relieved to limit his time on court to two hours and 10 minutes in a 6-3 6-4 6-2 result as the mercury nudged 35 degrees Celsius.

MORE: All the scores from Day 2 at AO 2023

The build-up

Two dazzling ball-strikers at their peak, both were in desperate need of a big win or a deep run – preferably both – to inject a much-needed boost.

While world No.6 Rublev was only one spot shy of his career-best mark, 2022 had been a challenging season, despite reaching Grand Slam quarterfinals at Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows, and collecting four titles.

The 25-year-old is yet to reach a major semifinal and admitted he struggled mentally throughout last year.

MORE: AO 2023 men's singles draw

Those challenges had spilled into 2023 when he failed to win either lead-up matches in Adelaide ATP 500 events.

Thiem lost his sole 2023 match in Adelaide qualifying, but managed three tour-level semifinals late last season to sneak back into the top 100, having fallen in his first seven matches back.

It had been a slow road back for the 2020 US Open champion and Australian Open runner-up since he returned from a wrist injury following a 10-month hiatus.

While he claimed his first two meetings against Rublev, he had lost the past four.

Story of the match

The bar was set high early as the pair drove each other to all corners on Melbourne Park’s second biggest arena.

Lengthy rallies had the crowd willing on a protracted tussle and it was Thiem who blinked first when he surrendered the first break on a sliced backhand wide for 5-3.

When another floated long it ended the first set after 38 minutes.

It was an unfortunate pattern that has become prevalent for the Austrian, especially in the early months of his return to the tour.

While he has gradually rediscovered the sting in his heavy-spinning blows, conviction and consistency under the crunch at times deserted him.

"Really good friends" Thiem and Rublev

There was some concern when he left the court for treatment, clutching at his ribs after surviving a struggle on serve at 2-all in the second set.

Again he pressed but to no avail as Rublev pounced four games later, breaking on a thumping forehand winner down the line and jumping to a two-set advantage.

With an early break in hand in the third set, Rublev began to slump between points, visibly feeling the heat on John Cain Arena.

As the match passed the two-hour mark, however, Thiem was unable to capitalise and he conceded a double break before his fate was sealed on a 35-minute third set.

Key stats

Rublev was particularly effective on serve as he claimed 81 per cent of first-serve points and fended off both break points faced.

While he only managed to convert on four of 16 chances, there were positives at having created so many opportunities as Thiem managed to win just 58 per cent of first-serve points.

While Rublev’s 34 unforced errors were 14 more than his opponent’s, his 25 forced errors were 20 fewer, while his 14 forehand winners were double those of Thiem.

What this means for Rublev

Through to the second round at Melbourne Park for the sixth time in the past seven years, Rublev awaits either Australian qualifier Max Purcell or Finland’s Emil Ruusuvuori.

“When you see that you have to play against Dominic it's never easy, plus we are really good friends,” Rublev said.

“It's super hot today, so I'm really happy that I'm able to win in straight sets and to save some energy for the next match… The more hot it is, it's tougher to think, to take right decisions, tougher to move because you start to feel exhausted faster, but when you start to think the other guy he feels the same it's a bit easier.

“In the end we're in the same conditions. If I feel it tough, for sure he also feels the same. That helps a lot, so then you just try to do your best.”

What’s next for Thiem?

The defeat consigns Thiem to his fourth first-round exit in succession at a major, dating back to Roland Garros 2021.

It was another tough result for the 29-year-old as he sought to resurrect his form and ranking.

"I know that he's going through not an easy time, so I just want to wish him all the best, to wish that he comes back to the same level that he belongs as fast as possible," Rublev said.

Thiem said the rib strain came at an inopportune time during the second set but was not serious.

While hopeful he would turn a corner again in 2023, he conceded he was still some way off his best against the calibre of Rublev.

"Even (at) my 100 per cent (fitness) I'm not able to beat Rublev yet or while he is top five seed here, even in a really fit situation," Thiem said.

"I reckon it would be very, very tough to beat him and with the issue like the abs, it's going to be almost impossible.

"But ... it doesn't really change after that defeat. I tried to go forward and, yeah, try to make it better in next tournaments."