His feet were heavy, but Dominic Thiem was feeling light.
That’s where he finished 2020, a year in which he clinched his maiden Grand Slam crown. The intent in the home run, only a couple of months after the biggest win of his career, was unadorned. But with just five match wins in 2021, one of them courtesy a retirement, the Austrian’s show is lacking in thematic balance.
The World No. 4 had a disappointing Australian Open in February, as the season got off to a late start. An indolent fourth-round loss to Grigor Dimitrov. In his next outing, in Doha, he won a round, before crashing at his first hurdle in Dubai.
It was that recital of 12 months ago, where he fell to Novak Djokovic in the final at Melbourne Park, 4-6 in the fifth set, that held a mirror to his ability. His best, the 27-year-old understood, could win him majors, own the very stages the big three – Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – called home. He ran with that to clinch his first major title in September, then carried the load imperceptibly, making the final of the season-finale.
“That (understanding) put a lot of pressure on me. At the US Open, I somehow turned it around,” Thiem said. “Those struggles came again, before the Australian Open. Approaching a Grand Slam with the hope to win it, is different from approaching it with the belief that it can be won. I’ve only been in this situation for one year, I still have to learn how to deal with it.”
The force may be in the physical flex, but the realization gave it command. “The huge power that I generate, I can hit winners from anywhere,” he said. “No matter how close the scoreline, I have trust in my shots. I have that ability of hitting winners out of nowhere.”
His mother Karin started a tattoo tradition in 2019 when Thiem won the 12th of his 17 titles at Indian Wells. After the US Open she inked the Statue of Liberty. A symbol of all that’s possible.
The New York final, his fourth tango in the title round of a major, consumed him. The 27-year-old edged out Alexander Zverev in a fifth set tie-break, becoming the first player since Pancho Gonzales in 1949 to win the US Open from two sets down in the final. An act that was 71-years in the making.
“It’s such a big thing to realize your career goal. In the beginning, I didn’t realize how much it took out of me. In a way, it still does,” Thiem told TOI in a virtual chat. “Dealing with it, digesting it, it’s a process I still have to learn.”
Thiem embraced the pandemic-hit 2020, particularly the spring and summer months, which gave him much-needed downtime at home in the market town of Lichtenworth. “Not to travel, not to have pressure every single week, the pressure to perform,” he said. “I enjoyed the first weeks and months…”
Thiem revels in the outdoors, great expanses of open spaces, he likes hiking and running. For that mental-physical balance of growth and diversity, Thiem reads almost anything he can lay his hands on.
“It’s something for my brain, I try to read a lot,” he said. “Almost every topic, sometimes something that’s light and easy like crime fiction, other times more philosophical books that are more difficult to read. I enjoy reading.”
The 27-year-old, twice finalist in Roland Garros, skipped the Masters 1000 in Miami to attend to foot issues (right). Thiem will kick off his clay court campaign at the ATP 250 Series Serbia Open, starting on April 19.
The front runner among the next generation of players, shuffling to take the baton from the Big Three, he also hardlines it’s consistency. Thiem reached a career-high No. 3 in 2020 and has been ranked in Top-10 since June 2016, the second-longest active streak after Nadal (since April 25, 2005). He’s now behind Russian Daniil Medvedev, who has crept up to No.2 in the ATP rankings. In breakpoints saved and converted (in 2020), Thiem is at 66 and 42 percent, ahead of Medvedev (64 and 42) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (64 and 39) who complete the top-five along with Djokovic and Nadal.
“The top-10 consistency is a thing I’m very proud of. It shows that I didn’t have a lot of ups and downs, I played at a very high level for most of the time,” he said. “It’s super tough to stay in the top-10. Tennis is such a competitive sport, with so many great players who have the possibility to break into the top-10, but not too many guys do it. That I have been there for almost five years makes me proud.”
Dominic Thiem, the athlete, is nothing if not dependable. It is the centre of his play, the cream of his results.
KINGS AND CROWNS
2020 – 1 (title)
US Open (Outdoor/Hard)
2019 – 5
Indian Wells (Outdoor/Hard)
2018 – 3
St Petersburg (Indoor/Hard)
Buenos Aires (Outdoor/Clay)
Rio de Janeiro (Outdoor/Clay)
Buenos Aires (Outdoor/Clay)