Thiem faces the ultimate test against Djokovic

 - Simon Cambers

Austrian takes on seven-time Australian Open champion for first Slam title in Melbourne.

Spare a thought for Dominic Thiem.

He might have hoped, at least before the tournament began, that if he were to reach his third Grand Slam final – and his first away from Roland-Garros – that he might find himself up against someone he would be favourite to beat.

After all, Roger Federer beat Mark Philippoussis to win his first Slam, Nadal beat Mariano Puerta to open his account and Novak Djokovic was too good for Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in his first, in Melbourne.

Instead, Thiem, who has played Rafael Nadal in each of the past two Roland-Garros finals, will take on Djokovic in the men’s final in Melbourne on Sunday, a tall order after another gruelling encounter, his 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 7-6 semi-final win over Sascha Zverev of Germany taking three hours, 42 minutes.

It’s unbelievable. When I reached the Roland Garros final, I played Nadal twice, he had won the tournament 10 times already,” Thiem said.

Now I’m playing Djokovic, who’s the king of Australia, he’s won seven times, more than anyone. I’m always playing the kings in grand slam finals but I will try my best. To be in the Australian Open finals is unreal. What a start to the season.

With a day less to recover than Djokovic, who beat an ailing Roger Federer on Thursday evening, Thiem will be at a physical disadvantage, even if historically, the player who has had the extra day off has not always gone on to win the final.

Even if he did not have a day less to recover than Djokovic, beating the Serb to win his first Grand Slam title would still be a tall order. This is the 32-year-old’s favourite court and his most successful Slam, with seven of his 16 Grand Slam titles coming on Rod Laver Arena.

The court surface, which has been slower this year, plays into his hands and having dropped just one set on his way to the final, he will be a big favourite with the bookmakers to make it Grand Slam No 17.

The good thing for Thiem is that he knows he can beat Djokovic, having knocked him out at Roland-Garros twice in the past three years. He also beat him at last year’s ATP Finals, although Djokovic still leads their head to head record 6-4 overall.

Djokovic knows what to expect from Thiem and despite having the extra day, he will not take anything for granted as he tries to win the title for the eighth time.

Novak Djokovic Australian Open 2020©C.Dubreuil / FFT

He definitely has the game,” Djokovic said. “He has the experience now. He has the strength. He has all the means to really be there. He has improved in the last 12 months playing on the hard court without a doubt, and the results are showing that.”

In last year’s final, Djokovic played near-perfect tennis, especially in the first two sets, as he crushed Nadal to win the title. Anything close to that performance might be too much for Thiem.

(That) was probably the best Grand Slam final performance I've ever had against Rafa, who was in form,” Djokovic said. “This year I'll have a different opponent in the final, so obviously it's going to be a different matchup, different preparation."

(Thiem has) a one-handed backhand, heavy spin, a lot of power in the shots. I'll prepare myself for that match. Hopefully I'll be able to perform as well as I always had in the Australian Open finals.

If that’s the case, then Thiem will be in trouble but at some stage one of the next generation of players will break through and this could be the Austrian’s time.

I don't think he's really anymore the next generation,” Djokovic said. “He's been around for many years. Now already he's an established top-5, top-10 player. He has played a couple of Grand Slam finals, won Masters events, played finals of World Tour Finals. He's already there.”