They say defeat is a learning experience. While the ecstasy of success can sometimes mask our shortcomings, failure brings them into the light where they belong. In defeat, we get a chance to better ourselves, and yet paradoxically, it can also increase the doubt we will ever be good enough – on Sunday, Dominic Thiem is hoping that isn’t the case.
Standing on the other side of the net will be Novak Djokovic, he of 16 grand slam titles, seven Australian Opens, and a spot in the pantheon of greatest players to ever play the sport. If Thiem wants to reach the mountaintop, the mountain he must climb is Everest. Has the failure prepared him for success, or will the Serb prove – as he has so many times before – indomitable? That is the question at hand when the two face off in the 2020 Australian Open Men’s Singles final. Who will win? Read on to find out.
From 7:30pm AEDT:
Dominic Thiem (AUT)  v Novak Djokovic (SRB) 
A two-time French Open finalist, Dominic Thiem will be hoping the third time is the charm on Sunday – as will every man born in the 1990’s, which is still yet to produce a major champion. Additionally, a win would see him move up to third in the rankings, breaking-up the big three’s primacy in a move the after so many false-positives, might finally herald a changing of the guard.
For Djokovic, the situation is about as tantalising as it gets. Not only does a win give him 17 grand slam titles – two away from Rafael Nadal, three away from Roger Federer – but it also moves him back to world number one. At this point in the Serb’s career, it’s simply all about the records, and majors won and weeks in the top spot can only help his GOAT case.
If there’s such a thing as being battled-tested without being too battle-tested, Thiem might be it. Since surviving a second-round scare against Aussie Alex Bolt, Thiem has gone on to dismiss (in order) Taylor Fritz, Gael Monfils, Rafael Nadal and Sascha Zverev – the last two in highly-competitive four setters. There is simply no doubt he is coming-in with his A+ game – he wouldn’t be here without it. See here.
Conversely, after dropping a set to Jan-Lennard Struff in the first round, Djokovic has come through completely untroubled. Neither Diego Schwartzman, Milos Raonic, or a somewhat-hobbled Roger Federer were able to get on the board against him, and although he hasn’t had to hit high-gear yet this fortnight, his ATP cup final victory against Rafael Nadal leaves no doubt he can should he need to.
If Thiem were facing any other player with the recent head-to-head advantage he does here, he would be an obvious favourite – and yet, as with many things, that doesn’t apply against Djokovic.
Trailing in the overall rivalry 4-6, but having won four of the last five, Thiem’s recent track record against Djokovic is better than anyone else on tour. Unfortunately for him – and it’s something the Austrian himself has admitted – he he steps into the Serb’s “comfort zone” here on Rod Laver Arena, and that, as they say, is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.
A seven-time champion at Melbourne Park, nowhere is Djokovic more at his all-encompassing best than here. As we saw last year in the final against a red-hot Rafael Nadal, his metronomic accuracy and depth from the baseline coupled with his innate ability to extract himself from troublesome situations makes him suffocating to play against. If a 19-time grand slam champion couldn’t overcome that, what chance does a guy with zero majors have?
Oddly enough, it’s actually a considerably better chance than Nadal. Even compared to the legendarily hard-hitting Spaniard, Thiem ekes-out a few more kph, and does it hitting a flatter ball, which can cause headaches even for a defender as peerless as Djokovic. That said, it’s not simply hitting the ball hard that makes Thiem dangerous, it’s that he can do so while changing the direction of the rally and putting Djokovic on the stretch. Specifically on the forehand wing, he has shown himself willing and able to take-on ambitious attempts down-the-line and inside-out that tip the balance of rallies in his favour, and because he is hitting the ball so bloody hard, even Djokovic can struggle to reset the point, even as these balls are being directed at his famously formidable backhand.
Of course, just because Djokovic has a hard time with such points, doesn’t mean he necessarily loses them. For all the talk of his diet over the years, it’s interesting that no-one has mentioned the cement he puts in his smoothies, because not only do his opponents find him tough to crack, but they are liable to hurt themselves in attempting to do so. He can go from completely out-of-the-point on one shot, to totally in command the next, and that is the issue Thiem will have even as he produces openings – making his way through them before the Serb shuts him out.
In addition, it’s likely Djokovic will have a slight, yet consistent advantage on serve against the Austrian. While Thiem undoubtedly goes bigger, the Serb doesn’t need to do as much to earn cheap points – particularly with his new-and-improved second serve every commentator has been gushing about. So sure, if Thiem can match his consistency on-serve, the advantage swings the other way, but like with the ground game, that’s a big ‘if’, particularly over five sets.
To put all of this simply: Thiem has the game to hit through Djokovic on occasion, but its another question entirely to do it in the final round of a hard-court major, for as long as he will need to do it. Indeed, Thiem will probably earn more film on the highlight reel regardless, but you simply can’t look past Djokovic’s ability to grind out points when he needs to.
Djokovic in four brutal sets. It might take an hour per set, but it’s still hard not to see Djokovic edging most of them. He hits too solid a ball, too often to be denied, and while Thiem is sure to be valiant, the end result is Novak Djokovic being crowned your 2020 Australian Open Men’s Singles Champion.