The Australian Open has received another shock as fifth seed Dominic Thiem defeated Rafael Nadal 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (6) in the quarterfinals. Hitting 65 winners and rallying from behind in the first two sets, the Austrian earned his first win over the Spaniard on a hard court after four hours, ten minutes of scintillating play to set up a semifinal clash with seventh seed Alexander Zverev.
Thiem fights from a break down to take the opening set
The third game of the match encapsulated the match as a breathtaking 25-shot rally with Thiem finding the net with a forehand down the line. He punched a forehand winner on another long rally and held to love in his first couple of service games to gain a solid foothold in the match.
The Austrian had a look at a break point in the next game, but a strong serve bailed Nadal out of trouble and he held for a 3-2 lead. The world number one won his first point on Thiem's serve and soon after broke with a nifty lob that the fifth seed could do nothing about. Serving for the set at 5-3, an uncharacteristic wobble, Thiem's 12th winner of the set making it 5-4.
Both men held with no difficulty from there on out and the set was off to a tiebreaker. From 2-0 down, Thiem's movement and speed around the court showed off as he also benefited from a pair of Nadal errors and he took command as a pair of sizzling forehands gave the Austrian a first set where he outplayed Nadal from the baseline.
Austrian again comes from behind, grabs commanding lead
Nadal had an opening at 0-30 in the third game of the second set only to see an ace and a rally that had everything from more lobs to net cords steady Thiem's nerves and produce a hold. He wobbled the next time he served, a bricked volley bringing up triple break point and a double fault handing the Spaniard a break for a 3-2 lead.
More memorable shots were being exchanged, the fifth seed ripping a backhand to get to 15-15, Nadal replying in kind with a winner of his own. After receiving a time violation and a brief exchange with the umpire ensues, the Spaniard holds for 4-2. Thiem fought well to hold and then made his move next game.
A ragged forehand put Nadal in a 0-40 hole and just like his opponent before him, a double fault gives away the break. A hold to love made it three games on the trot for Thiem and he was a game away from a two-set lead. He was in with half a chance at 30-30, but an eventual ace got the world number one out of difficulty.
Breathtaking tennis at its finest, Nadal saves a set point with a serve-forehand combination, a backhand just landing on the line after a review and another tiebreak was to be played. It was the Austrian who continued his fierce hitting and it served him well, a 3-0 lead turning into 4-2 and despite losing his advantage, he thundered home a winner for a two-set lead after getting another lucky net cord.
Nadal fires back to cut the deficit to two sets to one
Adding a huge serve to his remarkably powerful strokes, Thiem powered down his seventh and eighth aces to hold for 1-1 in the third set. For the first time, Nadal got on top of the point, moving the Austrian all around to induce an error and at 15-30, he had his chance. A beautifully flowing backhand brought it back to 30-30 and led to a hold.
The world number one's serve was starting to find its mark and an ace of his own on game point gave him a 3-2 lead. A 15-30 lead on the Austrian's serve soon goes begging as Thiem finds his first serve just in time to hold and keep pace. Exchanges of holds brought us to the crunch point of the set at 4-4.
More errors were coming off of the Thiem racket and it cost him dearly, first allowing Nadal to hold easily and then, serving to stay in the set, a pair of errors to bring up 0-30. That turns into 15-40 and another lengthy rally ends with the fifth seed sending a meek return into the net, the deficit cut in half, Nadal reminding everyone that champions don't go away easily.
Thiem wraps up epic in third tiebreaker to advance to semifinals
Thiem needed to stop Nadal in some way, but it didn't appear he would succeed early in the fourth set, down 1-0 and facing three break points. His versatility showed in saving all of them: a drop shot on the first, a diagonal forehand the second and an ace the third. That proved to be a turning point, the fifth seed breaking as the top seed got a forehand all wrong.
More glorious forehands and an ace on game point put Thiem ahead 4-2, the finish line in sight. A 0-30 lead and the finis line flashed before the Austrian's eyes, Nadal rallying to stay just one break behind. Each man held and the most important game of Thiem's career was approaching.
Serving for the match, Thiem felt the pressure, a double fault setting up two break points, the first saved, the second converted when a forehand is sent miles out and in the blink of an eye, Nadal held for 6-5, heaping the pressure back on the Austrian, who responded in kind to force a third tiebreaker in the match.
Falling behind by a minibreak at 2-1, Thiem rattles off the next three points, concluded with a sharp backhand volley. At 6-4, a nervous forehand found nothing but net and a lob that looked to end the match was challenged by Nadal and much to his surprise, was reversed, keeping the breaker alive at 6-6. A brave backhand brought up a third match point.
The world number one could only dump a final return into the net, ending a quarterfinal that few who saw it will ever forget and sending Thiem to his first Grand Slam semifinal on a surface other than clay.