Novak Djokovic has won all seven Australian Open finals he has contested, he is on a 12-match winning streak and will become world No 1 if successful in the Melbourne Park decider on Sunday. Against those overwhelming odds, few are giving Dominic Thiem a chance to wrench the title from his iron grip and clinch a first Grand Slam.
But the Austrian, remarkably, is the one with the recent edge.
Djokovic is 6-4 in their career head-to-head, but Thiem has won four of the last five. Three of those were on his favoured clay, but he also came from a set down to beat the Serb on hardcourt at the ATP Finals in November.
Djokovic is the first to admit that the slick 26-year-old has successfully refined his game over the past 12 months to compete on all surfaces. And he acknowledges it is just a matter of time before Thiem wins a Slam.
“I don’t think he’s really anymore ‘next generation’. He’s been around for many years. Now already he’s an established top-five, top-10 player,” said Djokovic. “It’s just a matter of one match here and there that can potentially give him a Grand Slam title, that he can actually get in the mix of top three in the world.”
Despite the platitudes, Djokovic, 32, is banking on adding yet another chapter to his storied Melbourne Park career, and heads into the match with an extra day’s rest after dispatching an injured Roger Federer in his semi-final on Thursday.
The world No 2 has been firing ever since arriving in Australia a month ago, and was unbeaten over six ATP Cup singles matches as he led Serbia to the inaugural title ahead of the Australian Open.
“Yes, I’m pleased with the way I’ve been feeling and playing. I thought ATP Cup went really well for me, got a lot of hours spent on the court, singles and doubles,” said the 16-time Grand Slam winner.
“Obviously got a lot of positive energy from that competition. I dropped only one set so far up to the finals. Hopefully I’ll be able to perform as well as I always have in the Australian Open finals.”
‘It’s his comfort zone’
Thiem, who has beaten four seeds to make the grade, including world No 1 Rafael Nadal in the last eight, is no stranger to Grand Slam finals, making the last two at Roland Garros. But this is his best effort outside of the French Open.
He lauded Djokovic as the “king of Australia” and insisted his recent succusses against him counted for little at the Serb’s favourite tournament. “It’s true, I won I think more of the last encounters than he did. But I think it doesn’t count so much. It’s absolutely his comfort zone here,” he said.
“He always plays his best tennis in Australia since many, many years. So I’m expecting that as well in the finals. All I can do is my best again, play great tennis again, and of course take a look at the last matches we had... try to repeat the good stuff that I did there.”
Despite playing down his chances, Thiem has the weapons to trouble Djokovic. He is supremely fit and regarded as one of the fastest movers on court, with a one-handed backhand that generates heavy spin and a power-packed forehand.
While the slower clay has always been his preferred surface, beating Federer in the Indian Wells final last year was a turning point for the Austrian on hardcourt.
“That victory gave me so much relief and so much confidence because finally I got my first Masters 1000 title on hardcourt,” he said. “I made this huge step forward. I really developed my game I think in the right direction.”
Djokovic leads Thiem 6-4
Paths to the final
1st rd: bt Jan-Lennard Struff (GER) 7-6 (7/5), 6-2, 2-6, 6-1
2nd rd: bt Tatsuma Ito (JPN) 6-1, 6-4, 6-2
3rd rd: bt Yoshihito Nishoka (JPN) 6-3, 6-2, 6-2
4th rd: bt Diego Schwartzman (ARG x14) 6-3, 6-4, 6-4
Q-F: bt Milos Raonic (CAN x32) 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (7/1)
S-F: bt Roger Federer (SUI x3) 7-6 (7/1), 6-4, 6-3
1st rd: bt Adrian Mannarino (FRA) 6-3, 7-5, 6-2
2nd rd: bt Alex Bolt (AUS) 6-2, 5-7, 6-7 (5/7), 6-1, 6-2
3rd rd: bt Taylor Fritz (USA x29) 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (5/7), 6-4
4th rd: bt Gael Monfils (FRA x10) 6-2, 6-4, 6-4
Q-F: bt Rafael Nadal (ESP x3) 7-6 (7/3), 7-6 (7/4), 4-6, 7-6 (8/6)
S-F: bt Alexander Zverev (GER x7) 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7/3), 7-6 (7/4)
(With inputs from AFP)