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Australian Open Final preview: Novak Djokovic vs Dominic Thiem

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Novak Djokovic

Major monarchs loom large in Dominic Thiem’s quest for a Grand Slam crown.

Thiem has lost successive Roland Garros finals to king of clay Rafael Nadal. Now, the fifth-seeded Austrian aims to dethrone defending Oz overlord Novak Djokovic in Sunday’s Australian Open final.

“[Novak is] the king of Australia, won seven titles here, most than any other man; so I’m always facing the kings of the certain Grand Slams in the final,” Thiem said with a smile. “I try my best. I try everything to win.”

Seven-time champion Djokovic rides a 13-match Melbourne winning streak into his eighth AO final. Djokovic is playing for his 17th Grand Slam championship.

First-time AO finalist Thiem is hungry for his first major title and empowered scoring successive bruising wins over world No. 1 Nadal and seventh-seeded Alexander Zverev.

Here’s our AO final preview and prediction.

No. 2 Novak Djokovic (SRB) vs. No. 5 Dominic Thiem (AUT)

Head-to-Head: Djokovic leads 6-4, including 3-1 on hard court

2020 Record: Djokovic 12-0; Thiem 7-2

Best AO Result: Djokovic champion 2019, 2016, 2015, 2011-2013, 2008; Thiem 2020 final

Career Slam Final Record: Djokovic 16-9; Thiem 0-2

Career Five-Set Record: Djokovic 30-10; Thiem 7-6

Dominic Thiem and Rafael Nadal

Novak Djokovic on Dominic Thiem: “It seems like he’s improved his game a lot on hard courts, because his game is more suitable to the slower surfaces. The clay of course being his favorite surface. But winning Indian Wells I think last year, beating Roger in the finals, that probably gave him a lot of confidence that he can win big tournaments on other surfaces, as well.”

Dominic Thiem on Novak Djokovic: “It’s absolutely his comfort zone here. He always plays his best tennis in Australia since many, many years. So I’m expecting that as well in the finals.”

Why Thiem Will Win

Courage Counts
Winning Grand Slam titles in the age of Big 3 demands major guts and Thiem oozes daring like most shed sweat. Look at the shot-making courage Thiem showed blasting 65 winners toppling world No. 1 Nadal in a four-set quarterfinal thriller then backing it up banging 43 winners out-dueling seventh-seeded Alexander Zverev in a pulsating semifinal. Major finals are won, not lost. Thiem will win his first Grand Slam because he’s fearless and will play big and bold driving the ball down the line with authority. Thiem embraces change: he hired former No. 1 Thomas Muster as co-coach before the season and dismissed him during the tournament when he realized it wasn’t working.

Dominic Thiem

Knows Novak’s Number
Rod Laver Arena is Novak Djokovic’s domicile, but Thiem has shown Djokovic the door in majors before. In fact, the athletic Austrian has topped Djokovic in four of their last five meetings, including an epic 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 blustery victory in the 2019 Roland Garros semifinals denying the Serbian’s bid for a second Nole Slam. In their last hard-court clash at the ATP Finals in November, Thiem fought back from 1-4 down in the decisive tie breaker edging Djokovic 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-6(5) en route to the championship match. Thiem knows Djokovic’s patterns and has shown the explosive power to defuse Djokovic’s vaunted defense in tight matches.

Novak Djokovic and coach

All Court Acumen
The Dominator burst onto the scene known as a guy truly committed to knocking the cover off the ball with his sweeping swings. At heart, Thiem is a punishing baseliner. Working with two-time Olympic gold-medal champion and coach Nicolas Massu, Thiem has added subtlety, sharpened his transition skills, flattened out his forehand to suit hard courts and adopted more aggressive court positioning. Now, when Thiem stretches an opponent, he’s willing to streak forward and close at the net as he did winning 23 of 27 trips to net vs. Zverev and 25 of 33 net approaches against Nadal. If Thiem can mix in some timely trips to net with his unrelenting baseline assault, he can take it to Djokovic at crunch time as he did in London and Paris.

Why Djokovic Will Win

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer

Melbourne Master
Djokovic has been major demolition man winning all seven AO finals he’s contested. A year ago, a ruthless Djokovic deconstructed archrival Rafael Nadal 6-3, 6-2, 6-3, roaring to a record seventh Australian Open championship in one of the best Slam performances of his career. The second-seeded Serbian is playing even better this year: since dropping his opening set of the tournament to Jan-Lennard Struff, Djokovic has reeled off 18 straight sets. The 16-time Grand Slam champion covers Rod Laver Arena court as thoroughly as a welcome mat outside his door and he will not relinquish Melbourne mastery to first-time finalist Thiem.

Sharper Serve
Arguably the greatest return in tennis history, Djokovic has spent time streamlining his serve with co-coach Goran Ivanisevic and the results have been impressive. After experimenting with the weight and balance of his Head racquet to alleviate stress on his elbow, Djokovic is cracking the serve with conviction. He’s hit more aces than Thiem—70 to 57—despite playing fewer set. And Djokovic is winning 82 percent of his first-serve points, which is sixth best in the tournament. Given his sniper skills on return if Djokovic serves with the same command in the final, he will prevail.

Novak Djokovic speaks

Poised and Prepared
Every time Nadal and Federer fall before a Grand Slam final, it’s a massive opportunity for Djokovic to gain ground in the major race. The 32-year-old Serbian is playing for his 17th Grand Slam crown, which would put him two behind Nadal and three majors from matching Federer’s all-time record of 20. Djokovic had ideal preparation for this tournament drilling Nadal for his ninth straight hard-court win over the US Open champion in leading Serbia to the inaugural ATP Cup championship in Sydney. Djokovic is an emotional player and a philosophical man. Joining forces with childhood friends leading Serbia to the ATP Cup infused him with positive energy and the tragic death of his friend and mentor, Kobe Bryant, reminded Djokovic this life offers no guarantees. Disparate experiences will give Djokovic both urgency and energy playing for his record-extending eighth AO championship.

Prediction

Think about the mission impossible that Thiem has faced in major finals playing king of clay Nadal on Roland Garros’ red clay and now trying to topple Melbourne monarch Djokovic on the blue hard court he regards as home. What’s next: Thiem takes on the Fred Perry statue in a staring contest at Wimbledon? Or Thiem tries to carry the Unisphere on his shoulders in a lap around Arthur Ashe stadium?

Working with coach Nicolas Massu, Thiem has become a more dynamic—and complete—player. The man who possesses one of the heaviest forehands in the game can drive the dagger down the line off both wings—he can flatten out his topspin drives and he’s learned to close at net and drag opponents forward. Thiem will need to use all these components to his game—and show the shot-making courage he’s displayed all tournament—to displace Djokovic.

The iconic trio of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have ruled 13 of the last 14 Australian Open championships with only 2014 champion Stan Wawrinka breaking their Melbourne mastery.

The 26-year-old Thiem has the firepower to do it, but I favor Djokovic and here’s why.

Thiem is one of the fittest man in the game, but surely will be drained coming off back-to-back physical battles against Nadal and Zverev. Don’t forget, it was Djokovic who prevailed in the five hour, 53-minute Melbourne marathon win over Nadal in 2012 then unleashed his inner Incredible Hulk with shirt-tearing fervor.

The 32-year-old Djokovic has played less tennis reaching the final so he figures to be fresher and he’s a far more experienced player in best-of-five sets if this final goes the distance.

Ultimately, Djokovic’s comfort zone, his proactive court positioning and his superior return game should carry him to his eighth title. Djokovic exhibits impeccable timing in Melbourne, he’s skilled taking the ball on the rise, can adopt more aggressive court positioning than Thiem and is willing to shift to multiple return positions as well. Thiem is fit, fierce and determined, but Djokovic dominates this court and is driven to continue his historic major march.

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