AO 2021: Can Dominic Thiem Win The Final Battle?

This image is a derivative of Dominic Thiem (3) by JC (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dominic Thiem has already won a major championship. He beat Alexander Zverev in the 2020 U.S. Open final. Moreover, he did so after Zverev served for the match. Thiem persevered, fought through the mind-and-body obstacles athletes often have to confront on the path to greatness. He very much earned his moment of supreme glory. We can acknowledge that and be generous to Thiem in his time of triumph and immense professional achievement. He deserves his major championship. He should celebrate it without thinking it's somehow cheap or inadequate. 

And yet….. we can also calmly point out that Novak Djokovic didn’t lose a match at that U.S. Open so much as he lost his cool. Djokovic didn’t lose three sets to an opponent. Heck, he didn’t even lose one. He was careless. His display of temper – which had nearly disqualified him at the French Open in 2016 during a match against Tomas Berdych (a thrown racquet barely missed hitting a lines-person, which would have DQ-ed him) – successfully gave him a ticket out of New York, thwarting his push for another major crown. Pablo Carreno Busta advanced in the draw. Zverev didn’t have to meet Djokovic in the semifinals. Thiem faced Zverev, not Djokovic, in the final. 

It is true that Thiem has beaten both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in major-tournament matches. However, he has not beaten either man in a major final. 

We can acknowledge that quarterfinals and even semifinals are different beasts from major championship matches. A semifinal is still a part of a progression, but a final is the end of the road, the stage where a tennis player knows there’s no tomorrow, no “next match” later on, no time to either conserve energy as part of a seven-match journey through a tournament.  

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Pardon the redundancy, but finals carry finality.

This is a central source of their enormous weight, their capacity to push competitors through howling and disorienting mental storms. Major finals – more than any other tennis matches a professional will play – bring forth the voices in the head which can’t be fully silenced, but need to be sufficiently tamed in pressure-cooker moments. 

Dominic Thiem fought through those voices in his head against Alexander Zverev. Full credit to him… but with all due respect to Zverev, beating him in a major final is nothing like going through Nadal or Djokovic. 

Thiem realised this a year ago in Melbourne when he held a two-sets-to-one lead over Djokovic, was on the verge of a breakthrough early in the fourth set, but could never make the decisive push he needed to drive a stake through Djokovic’s heart. The World No. 1 showed – again – why he is the World No. 1 and the man who, let’s be honest, is in the best position of the Big 3 to finish with the most major titles when this special era of men’s tennis ends in several years. 

True, Thiem beat Rafael Nadal in the 2020 Australian Open quarterfinals. Moreover, he did so by winning three tiebreakers against Rafa, an amazingly difficult thing to do. Thiem beat Djokovic in the semifinal round of the 2020 ATP Finals in London. He did so after losing a 12-10 second-set tiebreak and being achingly close to winning that match in straights. He won a third-set tiebreak in which he trailed by a double mini-break. 

Thiem has handled nearly every test in tennis… but we can all plainly see which ones he hasn’t yet solved: Djokovic and Nadal in major finals, and not just on clay in France.  

We might not see Thiem in a Wimbledon final at any point in the next five or six years, but one figures to see the Austrian several times in hard-court and clay major finals. 

Regardless of whether you might personally assign an asterisk to Thiem’s 2020 U.S. Open title (a matter for each person to decide on his or her own), you would agree that if Thiem can beat Djokovic or Nadal in a major final, he will attain the level, degree and type of validation his win over Zverev – as impressive as it still was – could never deliver.  

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Every major championship counts. Every important victory matters. If a title is there for a professional tennis player to claim, that player’s job is to claim it, and let the critics and analysts sort out the details. The circumstances surrounding that title can’t be controlled; only the player’s response remains within his or her power to guide and direct in an appropriate way. 

Dominic Thiem didn’t make Novak Djokovic default himself at the U.S. Open. He could only do what he could in the circumstances which faced him… and he completed his task. He did the best he could in a given situation. He achieved the maximum possible result in New York.

We, as critics and analysts, can’t take that away from him… but we can simply note that Thiem hasn’t gone through one of the giants of tennis in the kind of match – a major final – which tests and reveals greatness more than any other. Djokovic and Nadal have combined for 37 wins in major finals. Let’s not pretend that one’s opponent in a major final has no bearing on a player’s legacy or an athlete’s place in history. 

Pete Sampras isn’t regarded as an all-time great because of his wins over Cedric Pioline in major finals. He is remembered for his wins over Andre Agassi and Boris Becker in major finals. Roger Federer’s greatness wasn’t especially magnified by his wins over Marcos Baghdatis or Mark Philippoussis in major finals; beating Nadal on multiple occasions however, especially in the 2017 Australian Open final, will enhance Federer’s place in history and keep the Big 3 debate alive 50 years from now. 

One can forthrightly acknowledge this without cheapening Dominic Thiem’s 2020 U.S. Open championship: If he beats Djokovic or Nadal in the 2021 Australian Open final, his career will gain several new measures of completeness and legitimacy he hasn’t yet earned. Moreover, if Thiem can do this in Melbourne, he can then focus even more on finishing the job in Paris. If he can conquer Djokovic and Nadal in major finals on two different surfaces, not just one, we'll speak about Dominic Thiem and his career in especially exalted terms with a reverent tone. 

Would Dominic Thiem happily take an Australian Open championship in which he doesn’t have to play Djokovic or Nadal in an upset-filled fortnight which breaks his way? Sure he would… but you know, in ways which don’t require any further explanation at this point, that he would love to go through the very best in order to be the best. 

That's not only the biggest question in men’s tennis at the 2021 Australian Open; it’s the biggest question in men’s tennis for this entire year. 

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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