Locked in an even-as-can-be Australian Open semifinal, Dominic Thiem looked up at his guest box, patted his belly and stuck out his tongue, as if to indicate he was feeling sick. He shook his head. He winced.
Whatever might have been going on, Thiem turned out to be just fine — well enough to play, well enough to win.
The 26-year-old Austrian reached his third Grand Slam final overall and first at Melbourne Park by using his baseline bullying and big-moment bravado to beat Alexander Zverev 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4) on Friday night.
The No. 5-seeded Thiem’s opponent in the title match Sunday will be No. 2 Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, who eliminated Roger Federer on Thursday.
The women’s final is Saturday, with two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza of Spain taking on 14th-seeded Sofia Kenin of the United States. It is Muguruza’s fourth Grand Slam final and the 21-year-old Kenin’s first.
Djokovic, 32, will be appearing in his record eighth Australian Open final and 26th Grand Slam final overall. While Thiem eyes his first major trophy, Djokovic is going for No. 17, which would move him within three of Federer’s record of 20. Rafael Nadal, with 19, is the only other man ahead of Djokovic.
Thiem’s two previous major finals came on the red clay of the French Open, where he was the runner-up to 12-time champion Nadal each of the last two years.
Now he will face a similar challenge: Djokovic owns a record seven titles from the hard courts of the Australian Open.
Thiem never had been past the fourth round in Melbourne until now. But he’s in fine form, with three consecutive wins over top-10 opponents, including No. 1 Nadal in the quarterfinals and on Friday the No. 7 Zverev.
In both of those most recent victories, Thiem was better at the most crucial junctures, happy to engage in baseline exchanges until an opening presented itself.
He played three tiebreakers against the reliably relentless Nadal — and won all three. Then came two tiebreakers against Zverev -- and Thiem took both.
Against the 6-foot-6 Zverev, Thiem shook off a shaky start and pulled out the second set by saving a pair of break points before taking it with a 125 mph ace.
In the third, despite looking weary and ill, Thiem erased two set points with bold winners — one a backhand, the other a forehand. Soon after, another tiebreaker went Thiem’s way, and he ended it in style with another pair of winners — this time forehand, then backhand.
In the final tiebreaker Friday, Thiem’s last three points came via a pair of forehands and a volley.
The match was beset by interruptions — first to close the stadium roof, then to repair a lighting failure — and disruptions — including a long stoppage as Zverev, even though he had run out of replay challenges, pleaded unsuccessfully for the chair umpire to overrule a linesman’s call in the third set.
Zverev, playing in his first major semifinal, was also vexed by what he believed was a missed let call, and complained that the video scoreboard was bothersome.
What bothered the 22-year-old German the most, of course, was Thiem, who now gets less than 45 hours to rest and try to figure out a way to beat Djokovic at a place where no one is better.