A while ago, Dominic Thiem’s mother agreed to get a tattoo every time her son won a tourney. And tonight her 6’ 1” kid was tattooing the ball. Thiem’s mom now has five tattoos, and the way Dominic has been playing, another one may be on the way.
In a match crowded with “Wow!” moments, Indian Wells winner and French Open finalist Thiem showed why he is considered one of the great ball strikers in the game. The No. 5 seed showed he was in great condition, mentally and physically.
Yes, the match sparked both serious and flippant debate. What’s a better stroke, Thiem’s punishing forehand or his glorious backhand? Was Thiem’s one-handed backhand the best in the game? Or do you go with Federer, Wawrinka or Dimitrov? Could Thiem (or for that matter his upcoming foe in the semis, Alexander Zverev) become the first player outside the Big Three to win a Slam since Stan Wawrinka at the 2016 US Open? And, by the way, why does a man named Thiem play an individual sport?
Anyway, the real question that hovered over Melbourne was whether Dominic could take down the No. 1 player in the world. Thiem’s friend, 22-year-old Alexander Zverev, had just come back from a wretched start to beat the much older Stan Wawrinka, who is 34. And Tennys Sandgren, 28, should have beaten 38-year-old-Roger Federer.
Everyone knows a change is going to come. Thiem, 26, is seven years younger than Rafa. but he’s trailed in their rivalry, 9-4. They had an epic five-set match at the 2018 US Open, and Rafa prevailed in last year’s French Open final. The Austrian is a quiet but vastly appealing athlete, yet he’d never beaten Rafa in a Slam. The oddsmakers were skeptical, giving him a miserly 22% chance of winning.
But Thiem, who’d dismissed Taylor Fritz and Gael Monfils en route to the quarters, was the aggressor. He pounded Nadal’s shorter balls. He dominated on his first serve. He mercilessly ran Rafa to the corners. He was fleet and strong, forcing Nadal to hit slices, in astonishing rallies by two consummate competitors. And he was steely in the three tiebreaks.
Rafa later insisted he wasn’t agitated during the match. But clearly he was on edge and wary of the Austrian’s force. Rafa fussed about time delay calls, a faulty air conditioner and his inability to challenge a call. But then the air conditioning was fixed, Rafa was handed a freshly strung racket and broadcaster Chris Bowers suggested there was a pizza truck outside Laver Arena waiting for his order.
All the while, Thiem seemed to be following the orders of the increasingly powerful ANGW – the Association of Next Gen Wannabes: “Never mind all the cries of ‘We love you Rafa’ that ring through the rafters. Dominic, stay focused, use your tools and your youth. Stay fresh. Have belief. And, most of all, remember: the Big Three are not gods.”
Or are they?
Deep in the third set, so close to victory, Thiem faltered on three backhands. Soon Laver Arena was rocked. Spanish flags flurried. Rafa flashed some fierce fist pumps. The third set was his. His hopes for a Federer-equaling 20th Grand Slam were rekindled. The man who was so mighty at the French and US Opens and the Davis Cup seemed to be about to impose his best-in-the-game will.
But tonight Thiem was about power, execution and calm. And a forehand error from Rafa gave Thiem a critical break early in the fourth set. Then the Austrian faltered. Up 5-4 and serving to try to get to his first Aussie Open semi, Dominic blinked. It’s tough to beat a Big Three player – just ask Sandgren, who lost seven match points yesterday to Federer. What do these superstars have? Mighty weapons, a certain confidence, a deep well of belief, an aura.
Rafa broke back to force a fourth set tiebreak. But Thiem is battle-tested. He knew well that four times he’d reached a Slam semi or beyond – He’s no rookie. In the decisive tiebreaker he was in command. His great foe had few answers. The Australian Open is not Roland Garros. This is Rafa’s off-Slam. He has “only” won once here. And in the end, he was overpowered by the younger athlete. Thiem’s defense was superb. He held his nerve and stroked his way to victory.
After 4:10 of sublime battle, on Dominic’s third match point, Rafa netted his favorite shot – a forehand. Thiem grabbed his head. Subsumed by joy, he beamed.
He knew the iron grip of the Big Three was far from broken. The Next Genners have yet to win a Slam. But a generation of restless warriors are storming the bastions. And the fortress, at last, is shaking – mightily. Mrs. Thiem might do well to make a reservation at her local tattoo parlor.