Australian Open 2020: Djokovic destroys Thiem dream as stunning fightback keeps next generation at bay

By Sports Desk February 02, 2020

Novak Djokovic was in charge, and then he was not, He was injured, and then he was not. He was sliding to defeat, yet suddenly he was not.

And now the Serbian is a 17-time grand slam champion, fast closing on Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on the all-time list, after an eighth Australian Open title.

World number one again, into the bargain.

And that familiar beat goes on. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have now swept up the last 13 slams between them. Interlopers, keep trying your best lads.

Many greats of the Open era barely gave a Castlemaine XXXX about the Australian Open until the mid-1980s, the likes of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe repeatedly giving Melbourne a miss.

Yet Djokovic has built his career around repeated triumphs on Rod Laver Arena and is now 8-0 in Australian Open finals, joining Nadal and Federer as the only players to have won a single slam eight or more times.

Nadal's 12 Roland Garros triumphs may never be surpassed, Federer has savoured eight Wimbledon successes, and now Djokovic belongs to the eight-and-up club.

In previous years Djokovic has used this fortnight as a springboard to a new season, but he arrived at Melbourne Park already on a high, fresh from helping Serbia to glory in Sydney in the inaugural ATP Cup, fresh from beating Nadal so soon into a new season. Fresh to take on the world.

Yet for a long stretch of this five-set final against Dominic Thiem, Djokovic looked anything but fresh.

After trading breaks, Djokovic was gifted the first set when Thiem flunked a backhand and then double-faulted.

Usually a mighty front-runner, Djokovic's game began to splutter. Two double faults in game three of the second set saw him hand over the advantage to Thiem, who was ahead despite his often mighty backhand operating temperamentally.

It was that single-handed shot that was threatening to undo Thiem's otherwise fine work as he forged to level the match, and a wild example gave back the break, with Djokovic looking sharper after a change of racket.

But the 32-year-old from Belgrade can blow up too, and when he dropped serve for a second time in the set, after being twice penalised for time violations before slamming a forehand over the baseline, Djokovic was rattled.

He approached chair umpire Damien Dumusois, tapped him on the shoe and snapped: "Great job man, especially in the second one. You made yourself famous, well done."

The inelegant show of dissent was followed by Thiem wrapping up the set then swiftly tearing to a 4-0 lead in the third.

Thiem's backhand was back, while Djokovic appeared physically sapped. Limping, at times almost unsteady on his feet; anyone else and you might have written him off.

But Djokovic has shown a limp and followed it with a sprint before.

And although Mr Dumusois had not heard the end of Djokovic's complaints - the umpire's failure to immediately over-rule a call of 'out' led to another snippy rebuke - soon the match began to turn around.

Thiem made sure of set three, but just as a first grand slam title came into the Austrian's sights, it was clinically wrenched away.

A cheap concession of serve in the eighth game of the fourth set allowed Djokovic to level. Thiem was a rabbit in the headlights, Djokovic on full beam.

Breaking in the third game of the decider put Djokovic firmly in control, and that was swiftly followed by the saving of two break points, which effectively killed Thiem.

So what then of Thiem?

He said all the right things afterwards, praising Djokovic and speaking of the bigger picture in light of Australia's bushfire crisis.

But after two French Open final defeats to Rafael Nadal, another slam setback will feel more painful by the day, particularly as he was in the ascent this time.

Ask Andy Murray, who lost four slam finals before making his breakthrough at the 2012 US Open, what these days feel like below the surface.

To take a Murrayism, Thiem is getting closer.

Thiem is certainly due a break. He fell short in the ATP Finals title match last November, losing to Stefanos Tsitsipas, and split from girlfriend Kristina Mladenovic at around the same time.

In an eye-catching move, he hired his compatriot Thomas Muster to join his coaching team for 2020, but they have already parted company.

When he beat Djokovic during the ATP Finals, Thiem said it took "something outstanding, something unusual" to achieve that feat.

That was a best-of-three contest though. Over five sets, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer remain the untouchable trio when it comes to slam finals.

A Djokovic fan, wearing a red and white T-shirt bearing the message "Serbia against the world", roared on his man as he reached the brink of this latest triumph.

Federer's haul of 20 slams is within striking range, with Djokovic three short of the Swiss and two behind Nadal.

And here's a thing: the men's game has still yet to see a grand slam singles winner born in the 1990s.

Thiem would have become the first. He held this match in his hands, and he dropped it.

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    "Ridiculous" was a word used by Frank Lampard to sum up N'Golo Kante last week - and with good reason. 

    The Chelsea midfielder is back fit, back in the side and more or less back to his best, having missed 16 Premier League matches last season. 

    Kante's "quietly influential" form has helped Lampard's side to a strong start to the season that has left some to bill Sunday's derby clash with Tottenham as something of a title showdown – or at least a game that could well highlight which of the two has the best chance of dethroning Liverpool. 

    A win for either side will move them top of the table after 10 games, but Kante's recent performances might just indicate Chelsea have the edge.


    In 2018-19, Maurizio Sarri preferred Jorginho at the base of midfield, with Kante generally shifted to the right of a three. 

    The system was hardly a failure: Chelsea returned to the Champions League, won the Europa League and only lost the EFL Cup final on penalties to Manchester City. Few, though, ever thought it brought the best out of Kante. 

    Since taking charge last year, Lampard has shifted Kante back towards the middle and, as can be seen from his average touch maps, 2020-21 sees a full return for the France international as the midfield anchor.

    N'Golo Kante's touch maps by season, from 2018-19 (L) to 2020-21. The shift from the right-hand side towards the base of midfield is clear.

    He is averaging 82 touches per 90 minutes in the Premier League, the highest figure he has ever posted for Chelsea, five more than in his title-winning debut season in 2016-17. He is also averaging 67 passes per game, more than he ever has before for the club.

    In other words, Kante is very much at the heart of Lampard's Chelsea.

    He is also back to his exceptional defensive levels in 2020-21, averaging three interceptions per game – again the most in his Chelsea career – as well as three tackles, his highest figure under Lampard.

    The caveat is his passes in the final third have dropped by an average of six per game compared to last season and by nine compared to 2018-19, but the creative talent at Lampard's disposal means the burden of attacking is no longer on Kante's shoulders.


    If Chelsea's form is based in part on the performances of Kante, Tottenham's strong start to the season is very much built on the work of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg.

    Signed from Southampton for a reported £15million fee, the 25-year-old has established himself as Jose Mourinho's most important player behind the relentlessly brilliant Harry Kane and Son Heung-min.

    Through nine rounds of the 2020-21 Premier League campaign, Hojbjerg had managed more touches (809), attempted more passes (695) and completed more passes (619) than any other midfielder in the competition. He has also got stuck into 29 tackles, the third-highest number for midfielders this term and four more than Kante.

    Hojbjerg might not be a player of the Kante mold, but the two have had remarkably similar influences on their teams. Each has one assist in nine league starts, their passing accuracy practically matches (88.5 per cent for Kante, 89.1 for Hojbjerg), and they have made exactly the same number of recoveries (64).

    Effective as they are without the ball, so much of Chelsea and Spurs' good work with it also relies on these two.

    Kante has started 139 open-play sequences this season, eclipsing Hojbjerg (111), but that is about as big a difference as you will find.

    Of those sequences started by Kante, 13 have ended in a shot and two in a goal; for Hojbjerg, 11 have ended in a strike at goal and one has seen Spurs get on the scoresheet.

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    On Sunday, the winner of the battle for midfield control between these two could well swing the match in his side's favour.

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    Empty stadiums, Barcelona in the midst of an institutional crisis exacerbated by Lionel Messi's wanderlust, and Real Madrid a world away from the glamour and ruthlessness we often associate with Los Blancos – 2020-21 always looked set to be an intriguing one for LaLiga.

    Sunday will see the season's first meaningful clash between two teams vying at the top of the table, as leaders Real Sociedad go to third-place Villarreal.

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    But in this peculiar time for football, few have adapted better and they are laying the foundations for potential tilts at glory.

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    La Real earned acclaim and attracted many neutral eyes last season as they came close to qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since 2003.

    Ultimately their form tailed off late in the season, coinciding with losing key man Martin Odegaard to injury, but despite eventual disappointment they showed they were laying the foundations for something potentially special.

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    Arguably La Real's biggest strength is their pressing intensity – only two teams in LaLiga have averaged more high turnovers in possession than their 5.3 per game, with 1.3 of those in every match leading to a shot.

    Yet, this relentlessness isn't – as it can be – implemented to account for a shortfall in technical ability. They boast an impressive array of gifted players, as evidenced by the fact they've scored more goals (21) than they would otherwise be expected to (18 xG) and seen eight different individuals claim at least one assist – Atletico Madrid is the sole club to match this.

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    Alguacil has presided over their joint-best start in LaLiga history. While the result on Sunday – whatever the outcome – won't decide any titles, it is the first opportunity for La Real to prove they should be taken seriously.

    Restoring a reputation

    Villarreal's situation is rather different to that of La Real – they are at the start of a new cycle having decided to up the ante when hiring a new coach in pre-season.

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    Jose Mourinho has many happy memories at Stamford Bridge, but very few of them have come from the visiting dugout.

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    Were the former England international to secure another victory this weekend, he would become the first Premier League coach to win three in a row against Mourinho in the competition. Chelsea would also become the first club to enjoy a trio of consecutive successes.

    The Blues should not be lacking motivation this week, but the potential to make history against their former boss adds just a little more spice.

    Mourinho's full record against Chelsea (Premier League unless stated):

    Inter 2-1 Chelsea (Champions League) - 2010
    Chelsea 0-1 Inter (Champions League) - 2010

    Chelsea 4-0 Manchester United - 2016
    Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United (FA Cup) - 2017
    Manchester United 2-0 Chelsea - 2017
    Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United - 2017
    Manchester United 2-1 Chelsea - 2018
    Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United (FA Cup final) - 2018
    Chelsea 2-2 Manchester United - 2018
    Tottenham 0-2 Chelsea - 2019
    Chelsea 2-1 Tottenham - 2020
    Tottenham 1-1 Chelsea (EFL Cup, 5-4 pens) - 2020

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