MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Dominic Thiem was dragged into an engrossing five-set scrap by former ditch digger Alex Bolt on Thursday but disappointed a vocal partisan crowd by emerging a 6-2 5-7 6-7(5) 6-1 6-2 winner to reach the third round of the Australian Open.
The fifth seeded Austrian looked in control of the match deep into the second set before Australian wildcard Bolt, who ejected Gilles Simon at the same stage last year, suddenly stole in and took control.
In an unbranded T-shirt and creased canary yellow shorts, Bolt looked like he had wandered in from one of the South Australian worksites where he worked as a manual laborer before returning to tennis in 2016.
Roared on by the crowd, the lefthanded world number 140 stalked Melbourne Arena hitting winners from everywhere, including one around the net post, and putting huge pressure on Thiem.
Thiem was rattled to the extent he gave up the second set on the back of two unforced errors and it was the Australian who secured the third set on a tiebreak with a thumping ace before emitting a primal roar of delight.
“He raised really his level. The crowd got going. It was all of a sudden a really tight third set that shouldn’t happen ... I was freaking out,” Thiem said.
Thiem regained his composure, however, and started to pick apart the tiring Australian with shots from a playbook he has been studying since he was a young child training with his tennis coach parents.
Still pristine in his white and lilac kit, the 26-year-old was on level terms half an hour later and he cantered to victory without facing a single break point over the final two sets.
“He already had a five-setter in the first round and doubles yesterday,” said Thiem, who will next face Kevin Anderson or Taylor Fritz.
“I knew that probably he cannot really hold that level, so I just tried to stay in the match and it paid off.”
On the same day Bolt beat Simon last year, Thiem was making an early exit from Melbourne Park after retiring from his contest against another local wildcard, Alexei Popyrin.
The Austrian enjoyed a stellar season despite that early setback, ousting Novak Djokovic to reach the French Open final for the second time and winning big titles on hardcourts at Indian Wells and Beijing.
He is probably a bit old now to fit neatly into the category of “young gun” looking to break the three-year stranglehold of Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer on the Grand Slam titles.
Djokovic, however, has identified him as one of the chasing pack to watch and, with a lengthy but not overly exhausting test behind him, Thiem looks in good shape to get into the second week at Melbourne Park.
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Alison Williams