MELBOURNE, Australia -- After a tournament that began with fears over air quality, a cooler first week than expected and then a couple of brutally hot days, Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem will go head to head for the Australian Open title on Sunday (3:30 a.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App). For Djokovic it will be an opportunity to win the tournament for a record eighth time; for Thiem the chance to win his first Grand Slam crown. Here's how both men got to the final.
Djokovic's confidence could hardly have been higher coming into the event, having led Serbia to victory in the inaugural ATP Cup. Throw in the fact that the Australian Open is Djokovic's most successful Grand Slam event with last year's win his seventh title in Melbourne, and the No. 2 seed was expecting a good run.
First round: As the defending champion, it was only right that Djokovic should begin his title bid with the night session on Rod Laver Arena. But there was some added intrigue to his first-round clash as he took on Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany. For the previous three years, Djokovic had been assisted by Craig O'Shannessy, a stats guru who helped him with strategy. Their partnership finished at the end of 2019, and O'Shannessy was in the Struff camp trying to help the big-hitting German cause a big upset. The first set was tight, but Djokovic took it on the tiebreak, and though Struff played lights-out tennis in the third, the No. 2 seed eased through 7-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-1.
Second round: Djokovic was back during the day for his second-round match against Tatsuma Ito, the talented Japanese player who is working his way back up the rankings after having peaked at No. 60 in 2012. This was more of a stroll in the park for Djokovic, though, the rhythm of Ito's game fitting perfectly into Djokovic's game plan. The Serb ripped his way to a 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 victory in just one hour, 35 minutes. With tougher tasks to come, spending as little time on court as possible in Week 1 was ideal for Djokovic, who probably needed an extra bit of practice afterwards, so simple was his win.
Third round: Djokovic joked that he was "playing everyone from Japan" after he took on Yoshihito Nishioka. Like lightning around the court, Nishioka was coming off an excellent 2019, highlighted by a run to the quarters in Cincinnati when he beat Japan's No 1 Kei Nishikori. But the matchup was perfect for Djokovic, who stepped up a couple of gears to clinch a 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 victory, his best performance of the first three rounds.
Fourth round: Diego Schwartzman has the consistency and fleet of foot to test the patience of all but the very best players in the world. The Argentinian might have proved to be a tough examination of Djokovic's title credentials, but the seven-time champion is so at home in Melbourne that nothing seems to faze him. In his fourth straight match on Rod Laver Arena, another afternoon encounter, Djokovic cruised to a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 win.
Quarterfinals: Going into the tournament, the chances of a Canadian making the last eight was high, but the fact that it was Milos Raonic was a surprise. Early defeats for Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime had shocked many people, but Raonic arrived in the last eight without dropping his serve, looking back to his best after a series of injury problems. Djokovic had hinted before the match that he felt he could read the Raonic serve, and so it proved as he eased to a 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 victory. In the first match of the evening session, Djokovic had 16 break points and took two of them to set up a clash with Roger Federer.
Semifinals: For the 50th time in their careers, Djokovic and Federer found themselves across the net from each other with the Serb leading 26-23 overall. Federer had not beaten Djokovic on hard courts at a Grand Slam since 2009. At 38, Federer's chances were already relatively slim even before he struggled with a groin injury in his win over Tennys Sandgren in the previous round, a match in which he saved seven match points. Though he started strongly, Federer's luck ran out as Djokovic recovered from 5-2 down in the first set to earn a 7-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory and make it eight wins out of eight in Australian Open semifinals.
Thiem arrived in Melbourne with a new addition to his team in Thomas Muster, the former world No. 1 and one of Austria's most famous sportsmen, hoping he would be the key to winning his first Slam. The runner-up at the French Open in each of the past two years, Thiem's win in Indian Wells last year showed he can play on hard courts, too.
First round: Thiem was given the Margaret Court Arena for his first match against Adrian Mannarino, a Frenchman who had often given him trouble in the past. With Muster watching alongside his main coach, Nicolas Massu, Thiem looked focused and played superbly as he claimed a confident 6-3, 7-5, 6-2 victory.
Second round: Alex Bolt, a left-handed wild card from South Australia, had beaten Albert Ramos-Vinolas in five sets in the opening round. When Bolt won the third set to go up two sets to one on the Margaret Court Arena in the last match of the afternoon session, Thiem looked in trouble. But the Austrian lifted his game in the fourth and fifth sets to earn a 6-2, 5-7, 6-7, 6-1, 6-2 victory, later saying that knowing Bolt had gone the distance in Round 1 had given him the calmness to step things up in the closing stages.
Third round: Thiem might have expected to face Kevin Anderson in Round 3, but the big South African had been taken out by American Taylor Fritz. Thiem needed four sets to win their two previous meetings, both at the US Open, and this one followed a similar pattern. The enigmatic Fritz won the third set, but Thiem came out on top in the fourth in just under three hours, 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-4.
Fourth round: Gael Monfils, seeded No. 10, had dropped just one set on his way to the last 16. The Frenchman looked in the mood to test Thiem, but having won all of their five previous clashes, Thiem took a lot of confidence into the match. This proved to be his most straightforward encounter of the tournament. It took just one hour, 50 minutes for him to wrap things up 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 on the Rod Laver Arena, while Monfils was left to console himself with one or two moments of athletic brilliance.
Quarterfinals: This is where Thiem really stepped things up. Having pushed Rafael Nadal all the way to a final-set tiebreak at the US Open in 2018 in what was arguably the match of the tournament, Thiem knew that he had a chance to take out Nadal. The Spaniard was the man who stopped him winning a Slam title in Paris in each of the past two years. The pair produced a stunning match, battering the ball from the baseline and running each other ragged. Nadal began the better but once he failed to serve out the opening set at 5-3, Thiem sensed his chance, taking the first two sets on the tiebreak. Ever resilient, world No. 1 Nadal won the third and then, when Thiem faltered as he served for the match in the fourth, looked as if he would take it to a decider. But Thiem recovered his poise to win a third tiebreak on the night and reach the last four with a 7-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6 victory that took four hours, 10 minutes.
Semifinals: The big question for Thiem going into his semifinal with Alexander Zverev was how would he back up physically after his mammoth victory over Nadal. With temperatures still 35C (95F) as the match began, Thiem looked nervous. And with Zverev serving well, Thiem dropped the first set. After a couple of breaks in the early part of the second set, he settled down, beginning to find his mark with his familiar one-handed backhand. The third set was the key as Zverev could not take two set points, allowing Thiem to snatch the tiebreak. The Austrian was at it again in the fourth, finishing things off with a forehand volley to claim a 3-6, 6-4, 7-6, 7-6 win and put himself into his first Grand Slam final on hard courts.