MELBOURNE — That sound you heard Sunday night in Melbourne? It was scarcely audible over the onomatopoetic pop of Dominic Thiem’s relentless ballstriking or the squeak of his shoes on court. It was the sound of glass starting to crack. After 15 years of exclusionary excellence—after three years of three players hoarding the last 12 Majors—a new figure was about to crash through and break into the C-suite. The first player born in 1990s, Thiem was finally there to win a big title.
And…not so fast, son. These pillars don’t yield easily. The glass ceiling may be cracked, but it's unshattered. At 3–3 in the fourth set and outplayed for much of the night, Novak Djokovic said, “not so fast.” He went back to the business of serving well, offending, defending and getting stingy with his unforced errors. And he prevailed: 6–4, 4–6, 2–6, 6–3, 6–4.
In 2012, Andy Murray lost the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer. Feeling akin to Tennis Sisyphus, he blurted out tearfully, “I’m getting closer.” Thiem can relate. The Austrian is inching nearer to winning his first Major. This, after all, was his third final. But it’s still elusive. Here in Australia, he out-Nadalled Nadal in the quarterfinals. He backed that up with a composed, veteran win against Sascha Zverev. With the trophy in the corner of the court tonight, Thiem was three games from his maiden Major. But he couldn’t quite push the rock up the rest of the hill. Broken late in the fourth set, he began to backslide and he’s left with another runner-up trophy. Thiem is 26; he has been to Major finals before; while he’s back to No. 4 in the ranking, there are no more moral victories. If we want to continue with the Murray analogy, the Brit won the next Major (2012 U.S. Open) after that letdown. But for Thiem, this one stings.
Tennis isn’t much for changes. And Novak Djokovic winning the Australian Open had hardened into something ironclad. The rule was tested in Melbourne by a game Dominic Thiem, but ultimately not violated. Eight times now, Djokovic has reached the final. Eight times he has won. Djokovic did what all the great ones do: After winning the first set with this usual mix of offense and defense, Djokovic saw his level slip. He then reset, and reminded us, the opponent and—perhaps above all—himself, why he is squarely in the GOAT conversation.
And as it inevitably does, let the discussion turn to history. One of the Big Three has now won each of the last 13 Majors and 34 of the last 41, having claimed all but seven in the 2010s. (Pause here to laugh at this silly level of dominance.) Still, no player born in the 1990s has won a big prize. The updated tally: Federer (20), Nadal (19), and Djokovic (17). There are tennis “matches” not “races.” But this derby has become as gripping as some of the action on the court. Next stop in the tennis Quadruple Crown: Paris.