The making of Dominic Thiem

Could a brutal five-set battle with Rafael Nadal in the US Open quarterfinals, that ended in a devastating defeat, be the making of Dominic Thiem?

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(Photo credit: Marianne Bevis)

‘Being honest guys, I am very, very sorry for Dominic’. 

Those were the words of Rafael Nadal, the victor of the first match away from the terre battue between the king of clay and the heir apparent to his throne. It was a contest that was as brutal as it was mesmerising. It lasted for nearly five hours, beginning with a bagel and ending in a fifth-set tiebreak. And for Dominic Thiem, it was a devastating loss. But one that might well be the making of him.

A contest for the ages

To say that Dominic Thiem came out firing would be the understatement of the year. The Austrian has probably never played a better set in his life. Nadal’s attempts to hit through him were met with a mixture of power and accuracy that the Spaniard, for all his defensive qualities, simply could not withstand. Thiem hit 13 winners and made just two unforced errors. Nadal won just seven points, five behind his own serve and two against the Thiem serve.

Nadal looked shell-shocked when he sat down at the end of the set and the Arthur Ashe crowd were unusually quiet, having been virtually silenced by Thiem’s start to the match. But Nadal is not the world #1 for nothing. In typical fashion he rallied, digging in and battling as only he knows how. It is often said of Nadal that if your life depended on a tennis match, you would want him playing for you. Against Thiem, he showed why.

He turned the match around in the second set, winning it 6-4, before rallying from behind to win the third with a late break. At that point many expected Thiem’s challenge to fade, but the Austrian showed then what he is made of. He fought on, trusting in his weapons to force Nadal back, and the fourth went his way to send the match into the decider it deserved. And there, the quality reached its peak.

Neither man gave an inch, with all memory of tactics and subtlety forgotten as they went toe-to-toe in a slugging match from the baseline. Winner was answered by winner as the match hurtled to its conclusion. Nadal forced three break points at the death, but Thiem saved them all and the match went to a tiebreak. Even there they could not be separated, until at last, after 11 points, Nadal sent up a lob that Thiem could not quite reach, sending his reply well-beyond the baseline. It was over.

Only a clay courter?

At 2:04am, finally victorious, Nadal clambered over the net to embrace his equally exhausted opponent. He was forthcoming with his commiserations and rightly so. Thiem had pushed him to the very edge and on another night their roles might easily have been reversed. They exchanged kind words and as Thiem left the court, Nadal joined the crowd in giving the Austrian a richly deserved standing ovation.

Nadal now turns his mind to the battle to come with Juan Martin del Potro in the US Open semifinals, but he was reminded again of Thiem’s quality. And he has more reason than most to fear Thiem. In the past two seasons, Thiem is the only man to have defeated Nadal on his favoured surface. He was also the runner-up at Roland Garros this year. There, he pushed Nadal hard in the first set, before fading as his exertions over the preceding fortnight caught up with him.

But Thiem’s clay court pedigree has never been in doubt. He has already won eight titles on the red dirt, compared with just one on both grass courts and hard courts. Most of the points that keep him in the top 10 are won on the clay. He has, mostly, come up short everywhere else. Indeed, Before this tournament, he had never gone further than the fourth round at any Major besides the French Open.

He made a habit of losing to players ranked some way below him at the Grand Slams. Earlier this year, he lost in five sets to American Tennys Sandgren at the Australian Open before retiring when trailing by two sets to Marcos Baghdatis in the first round at Wimbledon. Many feared that his game was ill-suited for the faster surfaces. His long take backs, his preference for playing from well beyond the baseline and his heavy topspin all pointed towards just that.

A US Open to remember

But the Austrian’s performances at this year’s US Open have at last shown that he can translate his game from the red clay to the hard courts that are most common on the ATP Tour. That is despite the fact that his tournament looked to be heading towards the same frustrating end as so many of his hard-court outings. For, despite dispatching Mirza Basic in straight sets, he soon found himself in trouble against American #3 Steve Johnson, a player he would surely have handled with ease on clay.

But this time Thiem did not succumb. He rallied from a two sets to one deficit, blitzing Johnson 6-1 in the decider, to advance. Then, in the third-round, Thiem beat another home favourite, Taylor Fritz, this time from a set down to win in four. But though Fritz is a fine player, beating him could hardly be considered decisive evidence that Thiem was finally getting to grips with hard courts. After all, he’d reached the fourth round in New York three times in the past four years.

But his victory in the last 16 was another matter. Waiting for him there was world #5 and 2017 US Open finalist Kevin Anderson. Of their previous seven matches, Anderson had won six, including all of their hard court contests. Thiem’s solitary win had come, unsurprisingly, on clay. On paper that match looked certain to signal the end of the line for the Austrian’s US Open challenge.

A sign of things to come

But it did not. Thiem delivered a stunning performance, summoning thunderous power from the baseline to blow the South African off the court in straight sets. Admittedly, Anderson was carrying and injury and was not at his best. But in the past Thiem had faltered, such as last year when a visibly ill del Potro came back from two sets down to best him in five at the same stage in New York. This time Thiem put his man down in the dust and kept him there.

It was the statement of hard court intent that Thiem had been trying to make for so long. Previously he had only ever beaten two top 10 players on a hard court and one on grass. On clay, he has claimed eight top ten wins. But his performance against Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals has arguably done even more to prove his hard court credentials and suggests it will not be long before Thiem finds consistent success on all surfaces.

That is welcome news indeed. Thiem is one of the sports most exciting, aggressive and talented players and his going missing for most of the season is a real loss to the Tour. And, Thiem’s commendable work ethic and considerate personality, for example, he routinely thanks the ball-kids for giving him his towel or balls, make for a welcome change from some of the Tour’s other young stars. 

Even after his titanic battle with Nadal, quite possibly the most heart-breaking loss of his career, he summoned the energy to thank the chair umpire, sharing a smile with him as well. The way he conducts himself on court is certainly a long way from what one regularly sees from Nick Kyrgios. Both have their place in the game. But Thiem’s, unlike Kyrgios’, looks destined to be at the top table.

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