Dominic Thiem moves in to hit a backhand, with little but quick footsteps. He plants his feet with both hands on the racket and begins to pivot his torso into the shot. For a brief moment, it looks like he is about to execute a two-handed backhand. Two thirds of the way into the swing however, he releases his left – guiding – hand and uncorks a lasso of a right hand swing at the incoming tennis ball. There’s a seventy percent chance that shot won’t be coming back.
I’ve watched Thiem for a while now. The twenty-two year old Austrian belongs to a new class of talented players that have a uniquely longer gestation period before becoming the grand slam champions we expect them to be. Thiem however, appears to be a man on a mission to make that period, as short as possible. 2016 has been a breakthrough year for the rising star, and with his semifinal performance at the recently concluded French Open, there’s every reason to hope that he’ll continue to rise to the summit of the game. This time, this just might not be premature.
In recent years, there’s been a rash of promising young stars emerge from the depths of the game, only to fall back into it, or exist on the periphery of true stardom. Tomic, Dimitrov, Raonic, Harrison, Young, Donskoy, you name it. They’ve all kicked up a little dust here and there, only to fall back into obscurity. Two years ago, Grigor Dimitrov was exactly where Dominic Thiem is in his career, today. He had won titles on all surfaces, and posted a solid semifinal performance at a grand slam – Wimbledon then – losing to… you guessed it, Novak Djokovic. What happened next was a rather confidence crushing free fall. I’ll go out of a limb and say it started with a bit of pride. Dimitrov talks well. He says all the right things and appears to have the right attitude but I believe he was getting a bit ahead of himself when he decided not to be an alternate at the World Tour Finals. That was an opportunity for him to play with the best of the best and learn from them. Watching Thiem who is currently ranked 7th in the world, I get the sense that he’s got a genuinely level-headed approach to his career. He truly takes his strides, one match at a time and coming into the French Open with a lot of expectations did not seem to bother him one bit. He rose to the occasion in that tournament. Not many of the other members of the young generation can say that.
What truly makes Thiem a compelling player to watch, might just be what makes him a great champion, down the river of time – if that is his destiny. I started this article by describing his unique backhand take-back. The truth is, Dominic Thiem’s entire game is unique in the sense that it appears to be a hybrid. His signature backhand can get as big and as deadly as Wawrinka’s. His forehand is loopy when he’s tentative, like he was in the first set of his match against Gabashvilli at Halle. However, it becomes spin-deadly akin to Nadal’s, when he’s feeling confident. His relentless deep strokes are textbook Djokovelian and while his movement may not be Federesque, his variety when he’s zoned in can certainly approach those heights. Put all of this together, and you’ve got a guy who could rule tennis once the Djokovic era passes. It is no understatement to say that the next few months and the decisions he takes during that time, will be crucial to making his projected rise to the pinnacle of greatness a reality.
One has to ponder though, if it does happen, what kind of Champion will Thiem be? Most have touted him as Nadal’s heir apparent – a clay king in waiting. I’m sure his recent exploits on grass might be forcing a rethink. However, I do believe he will have more success on clay than grass. For all his strengths, Thiem’s game still has a few weaknesses that might prevent total domination on the faster courts of the game. For one, he’s got a big take back on both wings. That’s great for clay – remember Guga – but not so much for grass or indoor courts. A natural byproduct of the big swing is that Thiem does not take the ball on the rise. In fact, he sort of takes it on the drop. This has led to a Nadal-like natural positioning of a few feet behind the baseline. In Nadal’s days, that did not help his quest to bag a U.S open title or an Australian Open title. Thiem’s young however. At twenty-two, he can still make adjustments to his game just like Nadal did. Still I don’t see him being the dominant force on all surfaces like Djokovic is or Federer was, before him. He just might be more like Nadal. The penultimate force on clay, and a lock to periodically rule the other parts of the game. That’s a good thing. In an era when we the fans have been spoiled by consistent champions like Federer and Djokovic, it’ll be good to have a cluster of Champions, each ruling their own domain. There’s another young player right under Thiem’s shadows. He plays Roger Federer today in the Halle semis. Who knows, maybe we’ll be talking seriously about Zverev, very soon.