MELBOURNE, Australia — It’s no surprise we see the king of Melbourne, Novak Djokovic, once again in the final of the Australian Open, but not many would have predicted his opponent to be Austria’s Dominic Thiem.
A two-time Grand Slam finalist on clay, Thiem has transitioned into an effective hard-court player. While he has shown he has the offensive and defensive weapons to match up with the best on the blue courts in Melbourne, coming up against seven-time Australian Open winner Djokovic is going to be a massive challenge.
Here are my keys to the men’s final on Sunday (3:30 a.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App):
The all-around game
Thiem has got to be bold with his forehand. At times in the semifinals, Thiem wasn’t as bold as he was against Rafael Nadal, so that needs to be the biggest shot on the court.
He showed me something against Rafa I had never seen from him before, he played great defense. He’s even said at times that’s the worst part of his game, and he had really good willingness to defend in the corners and not pull the trigger in unnecessary situations. He did anything he could to get back in the point to turn it around.
I think Thiem has to serve really effectively. I think that if he can win some free points with some aces, aggressive second serves, some one-two moves, I think his serve is really underrated for his size because he’s not that big. But I think the serve is huge, and the forehand has got to be the biggest shot on the court.
For Djokovic, it’s just continuing his impressive serving. He’s got an incredibly underrated, effective serve and he’s a clutch server as well. One thing for him to look at, though, if he’s hitting second serves at 165 kph, 170 kph, all of a sudden his game is penetrable. But also his ability on this court to turn defense into instant offense in one shot. You just have to put your head down and say “goddamn, he was just in the corner in the most difficult position,” and he’ll flick one, get back to the middle and then it’s all offense.
The other thing that he does so outrageously well on this court is his ability to stand on the baseline for anyone’s serve. Even against Milos Raonic, who consistently hits 225 kph serves, and he just floats it back with enough length that he neutralizes the point. If he gets neutral off the first ball, you’ve got problems.
The extra day rest factor
This is the only Slam where the semifinals are played on different days, and it’s a quirk that I’m not a huge fan of. It may be a factor but won’t be as influential as Djokovic winning in straight sets every match from the second round through to the semifinals, though. That matters.
The crazy thing is that over the last 15 years, we’ve seen some matches like the Nadal-Fernando Verdasco semifinal in 2009, when Nadal finished at 1:30 in the morning and he didn’t have the extra day, and then he beats Roger Federer in the final. So we’ve seen about a 50-50 win-loss rate on the extra day of rest, there’s been no statistical edge, though you probably still want the day off.
But I’ve seen it work both ways a few times, sometimes with two days off you’re not sure what to do on Friday so you can get a little uneasy just based on time and what you’re used to over the previous two weeks.
Advantage: Statistically, even!
The mental game
Somehow Thiem has to make big progress here. I know he’s got to have confidence having won four of the last five [against Djokovic], but on this court, Djokovic plays his best tennis.
It’s technically a different court this year, so it is a little bit slower and the balls get a little more scuffed up. And we don’t actually know if it’ll be indoors yet, so there are factors.
I hope it doesn’t happen, but the last time someone was in their third Slam final and facing an 0-3 record was Andy Murray in 2011. I think he might have been the first person to lose his first three Slam finals in straight sets. At least Thiem has won a set in one of his finals, but you hope he doesn’t come out of here 0-3 losing in straight sets.
Based on what Djokovic does at the business end of this tournament, usually he wins in straight sets. This court is just perfect for his game, and that’s got to be a factor in Thiem’s thinking.
I’m rooting for a great match and hopefully a five-setter. But just based on his last five matches, and especially from the quarters onward, I have a hard time thinking Djokovic loses a set. I’m leaning toward 6-3, 7-6, 6-2 to Djokovic.