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.