Fifth seed battles past wild card on Thursday

Dominic Thiem continued his reputation as a master of deciding sets at the Australian Open on Thursday. The fifth-seeded Austrian ended the inspired effort of Aussie wild card Alex Bolt, winning 12 of the last 15 games in a 6-2, 5-7, 6-7(5), 6-1, 6-2 comeback win to reach the third round in Melbourne.

”It’s really nice to play in such an amazing atmosphere,” Thiem said in his on-court interview. “Of course, the crowd was for Alex. He’s Aussie, so that’s completely obvious. But it’s way nicer to play in front of a full crowd that’s against you than an empty stadium.”

Thiem went 15-3 in deciding sets last season, leading the Tour among players who played at least 10 deciding sets. He improved to 3-1 in deciding sets in Melbourne with his latest victory against Bolt.

”That’s exactly what the off-season is for, to get in great physical shape so it’s easier mentally to maintain the level over five sets,” Thiem said. “Australia is coming so early in the season, so it’s really necessary to have a great off-season and put your body in the best shape possible. It’s even nicer when it pays off in the early rounds.”

Awaiting him in the next round is South African Kevin Anderson or No. 29 seed Taylor Fritz of the United States. Thiem trails Anderson 2-7 in their ATP Head2Head rivalry and leads Fritz 2-1.

Bolt’s level of play Down Under doesn’t reflect his FedEx ATP Ranking of No. 140. He reached the third round last year in Melbourne and advanced to his maiden ATP Tour quarter-final last week in Adelaide. Five of his seven tour-level wins have come on home soil.

But facing a Top 5 player is a much different proposition. Thiem was ready for the challenge and immediately broke Bolt in the opening game of the match. Striking his backhand with authority and controlling the baseline exchanges, he scored an additional break at 4-2 and comfortably took the opening set.

The second set demonstrated how momentum can shift within mere minutes. Thiem served for the set at 5-4, but Bolt finally gave the Melbourne Arena crowd a chance to get involved. Charging the net behind aggressive approaches to knock off winning volleys, he broke Thiem and the crowd let out a roar of approval. Two games later, a forehand error from the Austrian tied up the match and completed a remarkable 10-minute turnaround.

Bolt continue to take advantage of Thiem standing well behind the baseline by hitting short angles and making timely trips to the net. The flair in his shotmaking reached dizzying heights at 4-4 in the third set, with an around-the-post forehand winner just inches above the court allowing the Aussie to hold serve and bringing the crowd to their feet.

The set moved to a tie-break and it was Bolt who struck first by cracking a big forehand return for a 2/0 mini-break lead. The wild card’s nerves were tested when he took a 6/2 lead and let slip his first three set points, but an ace on his fourth chance whipped the crowd into a frenzy as he grabbed a commanding advantage.

Thiem refused to bow out quietly, though. He pounced on Bolt’s dip in form and raised his level, winning five consecutive games to force a decider. The Austrian hit just four errors in the fourth set, compared to 11 for Bolt.

Thiem continued his dominance in the final stages of the match. With Bolt deteriorating physically, the fifth seed hit dipping shots that forced Bolt to get low at the net, setting up opportunities for him to crack passing shot winners. A strong forehand gave Thiem an early break to lead 2-1 in the final set and, two games later, a tired double fault on break point from Bolt all but sealed his fate.

A forehand winner from Thiem, his 56th of the day, wrapped up play after three hours and 22 minutes.