Ahead of their Australian Open semifinal clash, there is a sense for both Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem that a significant obstacle has finally been overcome. Neither man has gone this deep in Melbourne before, with this result Zverev’s best showing at any of the four Majors, and both will surely view this as a golden chance to reach a Grand Slam final. But win or lose, the breakthroughs they have achieved already this fortnight could well set them up for monumental successes in the near future.
Zverev Proves Himself A Major Contender At Last
Since joining the professional ranks in 2013, Zverev’s talent has been obvious. The German reached the semifinals in Hamburg as a 17-year-old, with that just the first step of what proved to be a rapid ascent towards the top echelon of the men’s game. He won his first Masters 1000 title in Rome in 2017, adding a triumph in Montreal later that season, before further successes in Madrid and at the ATP Finals a year later.
However, Zverev was not able to translate those successes on the regular tour into a deep run at a Grand Slam. Prior to arriving at the 2020 Australian Open, he had reached back-to-back quarterfinals at Roland Garros, but he had suffered bruising straight-sets defeats in both, and had only a handful of other wins at the Majors to his name. And after a miserable start to the season at the ATP Cup, few had expected Zverev to finally breakthrough on the biggest stage in Melbourne.
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But that is exactly what the German has done. He stormed through the first week without dropping a set, with the highlight a dominant third-round win over Fernando Verdasco, before dismissing the in-form Andrey Rublev in the fourth round. Then, in only his third Grand Slam quarterfinal, he rallied from losing the first set 1-6 to 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka to claim a 1-6 6-3 6-4 6-2 win and a place in the last four at a Major for the first time.
Thiem Overcomes His Greatest Foe
Thiem, in contrast to his opponent, has experience of going deep into the second week at a Major. The Austrian, who it is worth remembering is four years older than Zverev, has featured in the last two singles finals at Roland Garros. But in both he was denied by the great Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard had also beaten Thiem twice previously in Paris, including in the 2017 semifinals, as well as in the quarterfinals at the US Open in 2018 in a five-set thriller.
Thiem had, to his credit, generally been competitive against Nadal throughout their rivalry and had beaten the 19-time Major champion four times in 13 meetings ahead of their quarterfinal in Melbourne. But when it mattered most, Nadal’s experience and mental strength had always been the difference, as illustrated by the 2019 French Open final. After splitting the first two sets, Thiem, who had endured by far the more difficult route to the final, began to run out of steam and Nadal punished him ruthlessly, losing just two more games.
But Thiem was fresh and full of confidence in the Australian Open quarterfinals. From the outset, he was able to go toe-to-toe with the Spaniard, landing some heavy blows with his forehand and deservedly taking a two-set lead. In the third, Nadal fought back, winning it 6-4. Thiem answered with an early break in the fourth and despite nerves almost getting to him late on, he hung tough to record a famous 7-6 7-6 4-6 7-6 win.
Thiem has now beaten each of the Big Three on a hard court in the last 12 months, with his victory over Nadal adding to wins against Roger Federer in the final in Indian Wells and Novak Djokovic in the round robin at the ATP Finals. He has become a force to be reckoned with on the surface under the tutelage of Nicolas Massu. But Thiem is an ambitious player, entering his prime. He will not be satisfied merely by reaching his first Grand Slam semifinal on a hard court.
Both Zverev and Thiem are, to some extent, in uncharted territory. That makes this match hard to call. Both players can summon formidable power from the line and off the ground. When he is at his best, Zverev possesses one of the best serves and backhands in the men’s game. But Thiem’s forehand gives him an almost unrivalled ability to hit winners from anywhere on the court, whilst there are few who move and defend better than the Austrian.
His greater experience could also give him a decisive edge in a matchup that he has clearly enjoyed, having beaten Zverev in six of their eight previous meetings. But Zverev has never looked better than he has this fortnight, with his previously vulnerable serve now almost impregnable. As a result, all that can be said with any real confidence is that the crowds at Melbourne Park could well be about to witness an almighty clash.
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