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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Dominic Thiem finds range, rhythm to overcome Nick Kyrgios challenge

Thiem was down two-sets-to-love against home-favourite Nick Kyrgios in their third-round Australian Open clash. But the Austrian didn’t need to look that far back to remember the last time he overcame such a deficit.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai |
February 12, 2021 8:14:37 pm
Dominic Thiem with Nick Kyrgios after winning their third round match (Source: Reuters)

“Honestly, I was dealing with the loss already,” Dominic Thiem, after his match, answered Jim Courier’s question about what was going through his mind when he lost the first two sets. “Since the US Open I know impossible is nothing. That match showed me giving up is not an option.”

Thiem was down two-sets-to-love against home-favourite Nick Kyrgios in their third-round Australian Open clash. But the Austrian didn’t need to look that far back to remember the last time he overcame such a deficit.

In the US Open final last September, he lost the first two sets to Alexander Zverev but came back to win in five sets to claim his first Grand Slam title. It made him the first male singles player born in the 1990s to win a tennis Major, and it took him to the World No 3 spot he occupies today.

On Friday, last year’s Australian Open finalist pulled off another come-from-behind win, beating Kyrgios 4-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in the three hour-21 minute contest.

Here’s how he won one of the biggest ties so far this Australian Open.

Finding his rhythm

Thiem has struggled to adjust quickly to the pace of the faster Australian Open courts so far this term. And against the big-serving and bigger-hitting Kyrgios, he remained unsettled for most of the first two sets.

By the time the third set started though he had figured out his comfort zone.

“I got used to his game and this court. The longer the match went, the more comfort I felt,” he told Courier. “I went far behind the baseline to return his serve. You cannot read (Kyrgios’ serve). If you’re too close it’s impossible to return.”

Thiem’s first service per cent in the first two sets meanwhile was a low 46 and 64 per cent respectively. Then he improved it to 75, 67 and 67 in the last three sets. But importantly, he started to find the range in his shots and returns, as he steadily grew in confidence as he hit them.

The gritty baseliner even attempted an uncharacteristic dropshot to finish off the first point when he was serving for the match at 5-4 in the fifth set. And on numerous occasions, he played a perfect passing shot when Kyrgios tried to serve and volley.

Long rallies and physicality

One of the hardest working tennis players off-court, Thiem is well equipped to run down shots that most would have given up on at the first step. It’s a playing style he’s quite happy with.

For Kyrgios, who likes to finish points early, there was always a danger that Thiem would start to make the match more physical by increasing the length of rallies. In the first two sets, the Australian kept mixing the pace, which rattled Thiem and didn’t let him get into a rhythm.

But once Thiem, a powerful striker of the ball himself, gathered momentum, he started to make more returns and made it much harder for Kyrgios to finish a point quickly. He would anticipate a dropshot and chase it down, just as he started to get the ball back regularly during a groundstroke exchange.

Big shots when needed

One of the best ways to counter Kyrgios’ hard-hitting and tricky playing style is to hit shots equally powerfully and into angles. He started to do that more often after the third set when he adjusted to the pace of the court.

And some of the shots were so perfect that even Kyrgios applauded.

In the fifth set, serving at 4-3 and 40-0, Thiem played a powerful backhand down-the-line winner. Kyrgios applauded and said “that’s ridiculous” as the ball raced past him. He played a similar shot to convert his first match point.

In all, Thiem hit 57 winners, compared to Kyrgios’ 52.

Kyrgios’ unforced, and sometimes unnecessary errors

The commentary team, that included two-time Grand Slam finalist Mark Philippoussis, groaned when Kyrgios, at a crucial stage of the match, attempted an audacious tweener – hitting a shot from between his legs.

Serving at advantage and 4-4 in the fourth set, in what had been a particularly difficult game for Kyrgios, the Australian played a strong serve and when Thiem’s return came weak and short, instead of killing the point of with one of his thunderous forehands, he tried to be glamorous and attempted a tweener.

YouTube videos will show Kyrgios playing that shot admirably against the likes of even Roger Federer. But here he misaimed and mistimed his shot, and the ball instead ended up hitting his leg. The advantage he had worked so hard to gain was suddenly lost.

Thiem went on to break him in the next two points of that game, and then win the fourth set. It happened to be one of Kyrgios’ 47 unforced errors (Thiem only conceded 28). And it turned out to be the point that changed the complexion of the match.

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