Dominic Thiem ended six years of Grand Slam frustration against Rafa Nadal on Wednesday (Jan 29), with a seismic 7-6 (7-3), 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 7-6 (8-6) upset that booked his maiden Australian Open semi-final and rocked the old guard of men’s tennis.
After a win that quashed doubts about the Austrian’s prowess on hard courts, the 26-year-old will face Alexander Zverev for a place in the final, a match-up scarcely imaginable at the start of the tournament.
Awaiting the winner of that clash will be either seven-time champion Novak Djokovic or six-time winner Roger Federer, who meet in the other semi-final.
Fifth seed Thiem will head into Friday’s clash against the young German brimming with confidence, having ended Nadal’s bid for a record-equalling 20th Grand Slam title.
Turning the tables on the man who beat him in two French Open finals and three other Grand Slam duels, he became only the second Austrian to reach the last four at Melbourne Park, following Thomas Muster’s runs in 1989 and 1997.
“All the match was on a very good level, I think we are both in great form,” said Thiem. “Today I had the feeling I was lucky in the right situation … it is necessary because he is one of the greatest of all time. You need some luck to beat him.”
Top seed Nadal had a 9-4 record over Thiem. But the last time they played on hard courts – at the 2018 US Open quarter-finals – it was a five-set marathon. And the signs pointed that way again, with the opening set on serve to 2-2 before Thiem, gunning for a first Grand Slam title, worked a break point but could not convert.
Both baseline-huggers, it became a slugfest before Nadal managed to open some doors on the Thiem serve in game eight and he broke with a perfect lob from the back of the court.
But Thiem came roaring back, breaking back with a ripping cross-court return. He saved a set point to take it to a tiebreaker where he stunned Nadal to seal a one set lead.
Nadal, dripping in sweat on a steamy Melbourne night, attacked in the second set and Thiem lost his serve to love to go 3-2 behind.
But the Spaniard, the 2009 champion, became riled when issued a warning for taking too long to serve and it rattled him, sending down a double fault as Thiem squared the set at 4-4.
Nadal saved a set point and it went to another tiebreak where Thiem prevailed at the crunch thanks to a lucky net cord.
The third set was similarly tight, with no breaks until Nadal teased some errors from Thiem as he served to stay in the set, pumping his fists in celebration.
But when Nadal shanked a forehand in the third game of set four to be broken, the momentum swung back to the Austrian. He lost his nerve serving for the match at 5-4 before finally getting over the line in a tiebreak for a famous victory.
He now faces Zverev, who bounced back after being demolished in the first set by 2014 champion Wawrinka to take control and run out a comfortable winner.
Long touted as one of the next generation capable of breaking through to end the Grand Slam dominance of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic, Zverev credited a more relaxed approach for his success in Melbourne.
“I’m doing much more things outside the court,” he said, adding that after a poor performance at the recent ATP Cup he did not have high expectations. “Maybe this is a stepping stone. Maybe this is how it should happen.”