MELBOURNE, Australia — There will be a new-generation men’s semifinal at the Australian Open when Dominic Thiem faces Alexander Zverev for a chance to take on one of the sport’s Big Three for a title.
Attacking and defending brilliantly, Thiem, 26, defeated No. 1 Rafael Nadal in four taut sets on Wednesday night, closing out Nadal by winning three tiebreakers.
Zverev, 22, rallied from losing the first set to outwit and outplay Stan Wawrinka, a three-time Grand Slam champion and another of the game’s establishment figures.
The youngsters, it seems, are getting closer to the elusive prize of a major singles title.
Or are they?
Whoever wins on Friday will have a tall order in the final, either the six-time Australian Open champion Roger Federer or, more likely, the seven-time Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic.
“To really break a barrier, one young player has to win a Slam, and yeah, one of us is going to be in the finals, but it’s still a very long way to go,” said Thiem, who appeared delighted but cleareyed at his late-night news conference in Melbourne Park. His win over Nadal lasted 4 hour 10 minutes and ended after midnight.
There was a time when Thiem would not have been considered a youngster in men’s tennis. Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, two of the greats, were both done winning Grand Slam singles titles by 25.
But the norms have changed with the prolonged dominance of the Big Three — Federer, Djokovic and Nadal — who have proved, collectively, that turning 30 is no obstacle to piling up major titles and taking turns at No. 1.
Thiem, a velvet-voiced Austrian with a work ethic as strong as his right arm, understands this too well. That made his 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (6) victory over Nadal all the more meaningful.
“If you want to have a chance against him, one of the all-time greats, everything needs to work in your game,” said Thiem, the No. 5 seed.
Thiem has multiple victories over all of the Big Three and has beaten Nadal four times on clay, Nadal’s preferred surface. But this was his first victory over Nadal in a Grand Slam tournament after losing to him in the last two French Open finals.
Both men knew what they were in for. When they faced off on a hardcourt in the quarterfinals of the United States Open in 2018, Thiem pushed Nadal to a fifth-set tiebreaker before losing in 4 hours 49 minutes. Nadal was so spent, though, that he was unable to finish his next match against Juan Martín del Potro.
Wednesday’s tussle hinged on Thiem’s ability to recover from adversity and Nadal’s repeated failure to capitalize on openings and opportunities that he normally would have pounced upon.
Nadal, who has 19 Grand Slam singles titles, was aiming to tie Federer’s men’s record of 20, but that record is safe at least until the French Open now.
Nadal lost the first set on Wednesday despite having a set point on his serve at 5-3. He lost the second set despite being up 4-2 and a break of serve.
He also lost it, to a degree, with the chair umpire, Aurélie Tourte, when she called him for a time violation when he was slow to serve after winning a spectacular, extended point in the sixth game of the second set.
Nadal felt the umpire had started the shot clock too quickly after such a grueling rally. “You don’t like the good tennis,” he said to her twice, before returning to the baseline. Nadal later expressed his displeasure further to Andreas Egli, a tournament supervisor who was standing courtside.
But the irritation did not end there. Earlier in Nadal’s career, it was difficult to know from his body language whether he was winning or losing. But he has become much easier to read with the years, and he veered between exasperation and exultation as he and Thiem exchanged powerful baseline blows and rebooted points with acrobatic defense in the corners.
Some of their rallies drew gasps from the sellout crowd in Rod Laver Arena. And Nadal, 33, did his best to keep the entertainment going by winning the third set and then breaking Thiem when he served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth.
Thiem played a very shaky game, double faulting and making three unforced errors with his forehand.
“It’s a little bit demons in the head, like Roger said, it’s true,” Thiem said. “Everybody has it, and I was just rushing way too much, changing a little bit the tactics from all the match, and that was wrong.”
Thiem was referring to Federer’s comment earlier in the tournament that “the demons are always there lurking.”
That is probably not be the best quote for an aspiring champion to keep in mind under pressure, but Thiem was able to recover and close out the victory in the tiebreaker, on his third match point.
“I’m really proud of how I stayed in the match after a very tough situation,” he said.
Zverev, a tall German with one of the best two-handed backhands in tennis, has dealt with a few demons of his own during his career, winning prestigious titles but failing to produce his best at the Grand Slam events that define careers.
Seeded seventh at the Open, he arrived in Melbourne after a difficult 2019 season and after struggling in the ATP Cup team event, double faulting repeatedly and losing all of his singles matches.
But Zverev worked overtime to prepare and has managed to pull his power game back together in his first run to a Grand Slam semifinal.
“I’ve won Masters Series, the World Tour Finals, but the Grand Slam were always the weeks where I kind of even wanted it too much,” he said. “I was doing things in a way too professional. I was not talking to anybody. I wasn’t even going out with friends.”
In his view he was “almost too focused,” he said, but he has tried to live a more normal existence in Melbourne. He also promised earlier in the tournament to donate $10,000 to Australian bushfire relief after each of his victories, and the entire champion’s check of about $2.8 million if he wins the title.
“Easy to say in the first round, right?” he said with a grin after beating Wawrinka, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2. “Yes, it’s still true. I made the people of Australia a promise, and I will keep that promise if it happens.”
The odds are still against it. Thiem leads his head-to-head series with Zverev, 6-2, and has been having no trouble with his own second serve or forehand under pressure.
Whoever wins will still have to deal with Federer or Djokovic in the final, and with the trend of Big Three dominance. No active men’s player under age 31 has won a Grand Slam singles title.
“I think we are still a pretty long way from overtaking or breaking this kind of barrier,” Thiem said.
So it must seem at this stage, but the youngsters are undeniably coming. Last year, Daniil Medvedev, a 23-year-old Russian, pushed Nadal into a fifth set in the U.S. Open final.
On Sunday, someone in his 20s will play for the Australian Open trophy.