“I expect that it's going to be easier for me now in the biggest tournaments…”
On September 14, 2020, Dominic Thiem was waking up as a first-time Grand Slam champion. Hearing him speak after winning the US Open it was difficult not to think that a weight had been lifted.
“Such a big relief,” said Thiem, who had lost in three previous Grand Slam finals, including at the Australian Open earlier that year. Surely, after beating Alexander Zverev in a remarkable final in New York, Thiem’s career trajectory would only continue in an upwards direction.
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Few would have predicted that in the following two years Thiem would make just one more final and would struggle for form even before last summer’s wrist injury that has seen him plummet down the world rankings.
From Grand Slam delight to reset
Thiem’s US Open victory in 2020 was not in the mould of Emma Raducanu’s a year later: he did not come from nowhere to win his first major. Thiem had been challenging the best in the world for several seasons and his win-loss record against the Big Four – 5-7 against Novak Djokovic, 6-9 against Rafael Nadal, 2-3 against Andy Murray, 5-2 against Roger Federer – as well as his record against those closer in age – 8-3 against Alexander Zverev, 3-2 against Daniil Medvedev and 5-3 against Stefanos Tsitsipas – is a reminder of just how good he was. Thiem’s single-handed backhand was one of the most devastating on tour this century and he also had huge power on the forehand side.
Thiem's major breakthrough at the US Open came at one of the most unusual Grand Slams ever. There were no fans allowed in the stands due to Covid-19 - the tour had just resumed earlier in the summer after suspension - and the suites on Arthur Ashe Stadium were often filled with players idly watching on. Djokovic was also disqualified in the fourth round for hitting the ball towards a line judge, leaving none of the Big Four in the draw. Second seed Thiem took advantage, looking strong through the early rounds before beating Medvedev in straight sets in the semi-finals and then rallying from two sets down to win the final.
Thiem's record for the rest of the year was not bad, especially considering as from New York it was straight into the rescheduled 'clay season'. He lost in five sets in the quarter-finals at the French Open having played no warm-up events in the two-week gap after his US Open win, lost to Andrey Rublev in Vienna and made the final of the ATP Tour Finals, having beaten Djokovic, Nadal and Tsitsipas at the event.
But Thiem’s form started to slip at the start of 2021.
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He ran “out of gas” in a straight-sets defeat to Grigor Dimitrov at the Australian Open after coming back from two sets down to beat Nick Kyrgios in an epic contest in the previous round. He then lost early in Doha and Dubai before taking a break to “reset and recharge”. Thiem said he used the time to get away from tennis and there were positive signs on his return in Madrid as he made the semi-finals.
But then followed one win in his next four tournaments, including a shock loss to Cameron Norrie in Lyon which Thiem conceded was a “huge step back”. Had his motivation levels dropped after the US Open win which he admitted he had been his life goal? "I dedicated basically my whole life until this point to win one of the four majors. Now I did it," Thiem had said in New York.
Thiem said it was his "game" that wasn't there rather than a lack of "motivation" after another surprise defeat to Pablo Andujar in the first round of the French Open. A few weeks later a wrist injury in Mallorca would shut down his season.
‘A different world’
As Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka know all too well, the road back to the top after serious injuries is not always a smooth one. Thiem was scheduled to return at the end of 2021, but pushed that back, then missed the Australian Open, and didn’t get back on court until the end of March.
Unlike Murray and Wawrinka he did avoid surgery on his wrist, but having dropped outside the top 300 in the rankings, Thiem lost seven matches in a row before a much-needed victory on the second-tier ATP Challenger Tour. A week later he got his first ATP Tour win in 426 days. "It's a long time…it feels like a different world somehow," said Thiem after beating Emil Ruusuvuori. “Many, many things happened. It was tough, but it was also a very good experience, I think, for life in general. I’m so happy that I got this first victory."
There have been some encouraging signs since then; a semi-final run in Gstaad, quarters in Kitzbuhel, last 16 in Winston-Salem in his first hard-court event in 17 months. Even in a first-round defeat to Pablo Carreno Busta at the US Open there were some signs of the old Thiem, the top-spin groundstrokes firing early on and a few trademark backhand winners - “A lot of good things to take from this match."
But there was also a reflection from Thiem on his status in the game right now. "Everybody who thought that I was the favourite today was far away from reality," he said after the four-set loss.
Dominic Thiem bei den French Open
Image credit: Imago
Can Thiem get back to the top?
When Thiem won the US Open in 2020 it looked like he might be part of a new order along with Medvedev and Zverev. Now the landscape has shifted.
Carlos Alcaraz showed off some Thiem-esque power hitting on his way to winning in New York this summer and becoming the new world No. 1. Behind him there’s world No. 2 Casper Ruud and Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas all looking to compete for Grand Slam titles. Plus Nadal and Djokovic are still going strong.
Is there still a place for Thiem at the top table? If he can get back to near his best then there’s no reason why not. His talent is exceptional and his aggressive free-swinging game is a match for any opponent, particularly on clay.
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But it’s clearly a long way back, not just in the rankings, where Thiem is at 216, but also on the court. Although he’s made some progress in the last five months he is still a way off the player he was. Perhaps he’s lacking some confidence in his game and perhaps there’s still not total trust in the wrist to deliver consistent snap and power into shots.
Thiem, though, is remaining optimistic. Speaking before the US Open he said: “The lesson I learned was that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, even when you don’t think there is, even when things are very, very tough, when there’s a lot of pain or when it seems like there is no way forward.
“I had this feeling quite a lot, especially in the beginning of the wrist injury. But somehow after a while, there is always a little step forward. To see those little positive things, it’s very important and it’s not only in tennis or sports, but all of life.”
Thiem still has time on his side and he still has a chance to rediscover his best.
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