“It’s unbelievable, twice in Roland Garros finals, twice facing Rafa. Now facing Novak here, he’s the king of Australia… so I’m always facing the kings of the Grand Slams in the finals”

Dominic Thiem said it with a chuckle in his court-interview but you could see that it was a fact that must be weighing down on his mind, understandably so.

In his first two Grand Slam finals – the 2018 and 2019 French Open – he was up against Rafael Nadal, who won an unprecedented 11 and 12 titles. Now, in in his first final at the Australian Open, he will play Novak Djokovic who has won it a record seven times.

Djokovic has never lost in Melbourne once he reaches the semi-final and has been so strong in the summit clash, that the runner-plate is jokingly called the ‘Andy Murray plate’ after the Serb has beaten him four times in the final.

The Austrian youngster knows the monumental task he has on hand from his last two finals. But that could work both ways as the 26-year-old also has the experience of being in the toughest of tests at a Major.

In his first final, Nadal had crushed him in straight sets but in the second, he managed to take a set off (before being served a breadstick in the next two.)

Now as he gets ready for his third, and first on hard-courts, Thiem embodies the eternal quest of a generation of men’s tennis – beating the Big Three in Grand Slam finals.

The last 12 Grand Slams have been won by either Nadal, Djokovic or Roger Federer and the trio have won 33 of the 40 Majors in the last decade.

If Thiem can indeed begin the new decade with a Grand Slam title, the 26-year-old will become the first man born in the 1990s to win a Grand Slam and the youngest champion since Juan Martin del Potro, who was 20 at US Open 2009.

Only Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray, and Marin Cilic have made inroads with a total of seven Slams between them. But even Murray, a world No 1 and a member of the elitist of clubs, or Wawrinka, a player who has beaten Nadal and Djokovic in Slam finals, have not been able to sustain at the level of the Big Three.

While they faded with injury and a subdued return, even injuries and surgeries couldn’t affect the stronghold Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have collectively had. They have all had fairytale comeback stories in the last couple of years, with Slam runs and new records.

Thiem knocking down the doors consistently

It tells you what Thiem is up against. He is not just the record seven-time Australian Open champion but the legacy Djokovic has created along with the likes of Federer and Nadal. A barrier that has remained unbreached for a decade now.

For the Austrian to break, an extraordinary effort, of mind, body and spirit will be required.

But of all the youngsters in the top 10, Thiem has been knocking on the doors at the elite level the longest... and the hardest. He has the best record against the big three combined – beating all of them the last time they played – and has backed up those wins with consistentcy.

He is also the only man born in 1990s to have won a set in a Grand Slam final when he took a set off Nadal in 2019. At 26, he is also older than his other contemporaries in the top 10, and more settled with his game.

But leading up to the Australian Open final, the major advantage he has is the experience of beating Djokovic in big matches, including a Grand Slam, and the ATP Finals. Thiem’s record of 4-6 against the Serb is also as close as it can be.

The Austrian had played a terrific match to beat him in a tough semi-final at the French Open in 2019. Over (weather-hit) two days, four hours and five sets, Thiem had stayed focused to end Djokovic’s dream of becoming just the second man in history to hold all Grand Slam titles at the same time twice.

That 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 win against the then world No 1, even though it was on his favoured clay, should give him confidence. And the 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6(5) win at the ATP Finals, his first on a hard court against Djokovic, will give him the belief that he has a shot.

Once known as a “clay-court grinder”, Thiem – who has benefited immensely from Nicolas Massu joining him as a coach – has left that tag behind in 2019 when he won his first Masters 1000 title on the hard courts of Indian Wells beating Federer in the final. He ended the season with a runner-up trophy at the ATP Finals, also played on indoor hardcourts. Now, he is in his first final on the hard courts of the Australian Open.

There is no doubt that he has the all-court game and the temperament to belong at this level. A win against Rafael Nadal, even at the Slam where he has won just once, counts for a lot. The fact that he backed it up against Alexander Zverev in the semi-final, fighting from a set down and despite the obvious nerves he admitted – is proof that he is a genuine challenger.

He now has the chance to strike a blow for an entire generation, so to speak. Others have been here, most recently Daniil Medvedev at US Open. But as someone with the experience Thiem now has at this level, he does have an edge.

This will only the second time that Djokovic will face a player younger than him in a Grand Slam final, after del Potro at US Open 2018. Now, that may or may not affect him but it tells you that 2020 is beginning on a strong note for men’s tennis – with the future knocking hard on the doors.