By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Novak Djokovic endured a fierce challenge to his Melbourne Park reign before overhauling Dominic Thiem 6-4 4-6 2-6 6-3 6-4 in a thriller on Sunday to clinch an eighth Australian Open crown and reclaim the world number one ranking.
Under siege for much of a riveting four-hour slog, the defending champion found himself behind after three sets for the first time in eight finals at Rod Laver Arena.
But as he so often does, the steely-eyed Serb found a way to win, defying a crowd that was shamelessly behind the underdog Austrian.
He captured the decisive break in the third game of the final set, then locked down the match to secure his 17th Grand Slam title as a tiring Thiem bowed out with guns blazing.
“This is definitely my favorite court, my favorite stadium in the world and I am blessed to hold this trophy again,” said Djokovic after being handed the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup by 2005 winner Marat Safin.
Claiming the win when the fifth seed fired wide, Djokovic dropped his racket, spread his arms wide and walked to the net in a subdued celebration.
It had easily been his toughest battle in a Melbourne decider since the near six-hour epic against Rafa Nadal in 2012.
“I was on the brink of losing the match,” he told reporters. “Could have gone a different way.”
The Serb’s triumph meant tennis’ Big Three of Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer have now shared the last 13 majors between them – dating back to the Swiss’s 2017 Melbourne win.
Thiem was consigned to his third defeat in a Grand Slam final following losses in the last two French Open deciders to Nadal.
“Unreal what you are doing through all these years. You and two other guys have brought men’s tennis to a completely new level,” the 26-year-old told Djokovic at the trophy ceremony.
“Well I fell a little bit short but I hope I can get revenge soon.”
While Thiem started heavy-legged after needing a combined eight hours to beat Nadal and Alexander Zverev in his previous two matches, Djokovic charged out of the blocks to take the first set.
But the match turned on its head at 4-4 in the second when he became flustered after being called twice for breaching the service clock.
As he returned to his chair fuming, he paused to sarcastically pat chair umpire Damien Dumusois’s sneaker, telling the Frenchman: “Great job man, you made yourself famous in this match, especially for the second one. Well done.”
Conceding the set with a terrible backhand, a shellshocked Djokovic lost six games in a row as Thiem, blasting winners virtually at will, roared to a 4-0 lead in the third.
Djokovic appeared listless and sapped of energy, and he called for the trainer after holding serve. But he underwent no treatment and resumed after an exchange of words.
He later left the court for a medical time-out which prompted tennis pundits to accuse him of gamesmanship, not for the first time in the Serb’s decorated career.
It looked gloomy for Djokovic as an energized Thiem took the third set, but the match turned again when the Austrian double-faulted to concede two break points, then blasted a forehand long to fall 5-3 behind in the fourth.
In a flash, Djokovic had served out the set to love, sealing it with an ace.
Having spent about six hours more on court than Djokovic at the tournament, the strain of a long campaign took its toll on Thiem – but he refused to crumble in the fifth.
He had two chances to break back in the fourth game but Djokovic nervelessly canceled the threat before grinding to the finish.
He became the third man to win the same Grand Slam at least eight times, joining Nadal with his 12 French Open crowns and Federer who has triumphed eight times at Wimbledon.
(Additional reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Pritha Sarkar)