I have many regrets at this hour. They include, but are not limited to, genuinely believing someone born after 1987 could win a major title, believing this even into the fifth set at the Australian Open final against this specific opponent, and (as a result) staying awake between the hours of 4 and 8 a.m. ET. Really bad judgment all around. But, under certain circumstances, you do gotta hand it Novak Djokovic.
Because for once, his singular body—ultramarathoner meets contortionist—was letting him down during a physical war with Dominic Thiem. Djokovic took the first set. The next two? No fist pumps, no crazed glares, no thriving off the negativity of the crowd, no serves, no counterpunches, not much of anything. Just straight-up looking clammy and puttering around while refueling with an array of anonymous drinks and tablets. It was surreal to see him so physically out of a title match, given that the conditions weren’t hot and he hadn’t dropped a set since the first round.
Thiem stayed the course and took two sets, including a searing stretch of six straight games. Observations during this span included: Thiem is debuting the new best forehand in the game, struck on the rise with timing and aggressive court positioning he didn’t used to have, busting up the greatest defender in the world; Thiem has intelligently solved the problem of a misfiring backhand by making do with heavy cross-court rally balls and a great slice; Thiem is moving smooth enough to keep this up for hours; my previous illustration could be recycled for this here blog by simply placing the trophy on the notable shelf.
Then everything came undone at 4-3 in the fourth set. One sloppy Thiem service game—a blown volley, a forehand error, a double-fault—and Djokovic caught a whiff of his eighth Australian Open title. He broke serve and was renewed. The blood came back into his legs. The starved look came back into his eyes. He broke early in the fifth, too, and rode that out.
The upset was there for the taking. Most young players haven’t even gotten close enough to learn this lesson, but Dominic Thiem learned it today: If you’re going to step on Novak Djokovic’s throat, do it with conviction, or you’ll just end up with a broken foot. It’ll be Thiem’s big day soon—maybe even this season—but for now, there still exist strange dudes capable of resurrecting themselves over five sets, and what the hell are you supposed to do about that?