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A FORGOTTEN CHAMPION HOPING TO MAKE ONE LAST RESURGENCE



Reaching the pinnacle and having your name in the discussion amongst the world’s best players is an incredible achievement in itself. It takes years of hard work to get to that stage, but at the same time, it can all be undone with a click of a finger. Unfortunately, the latter has been true for Dominic Thiem. June will mark two years since he seriously injured his wrist while playing at the Mallorca Open against Adrian Mannarino. Undoubtedly, one of the worst injuries any tennis player can endure. From that point onwards, it took nine months of recovery to finally get back out on the court competing at the highest level. Some are plagued by health setbacks with Juan Martin Del Potro first springing to mind as a recent example. For others, one injury is all it takes to slowly unravel a career. So, what did the Austrian’s career look like pre-injury? Reaching as high as world number 3, Thiem was considered one of the brightest prospects outside of the ‘big three’ helped by his ability to blow opponents off the court with his incredible power, foot speed, and durability to keep up with the very best, as well his one-handed backhand which to this day is one of the most satisfying sights in the sport. The 29-year-old is a US Open champion as well as an Australian Open runner-up, but despite success on the hard courts, it’s the red clay in which he thrives the most. It was only a few years ago that Dominic, not Novak, was Rafael Nadal’s number-one challenger during both the clay court season and the French Open. Thiem finished runner-up to the Spaniard at Roland-Garros in 2018 and 2019 on top of reaching the semis in 2016 and 2017. Overall, he holds an impressive 28-7 record (80%) in the Parisian grand slam, where four of those seven defeats have come at the hands of Rafa. It must be said that those were his prime years that are unlikely to be repeated again. During that 2016-2020 period, his numbers were impressively consistent at the level of Carlos Alcaraz today, averaging a first serve of 62.3% and 73.2% on first serves won. A 79.9% win percentage on the clay in those five years asserted himself as a real force to be reckoned with.

However, after the nine-month absence away from the game, Thiem desperately struggled to find his rhythm and rediscover his top-three calibre form as he lost his first seven competitive matches on the tour. Questions were beginning to be raised about whether he would ever be able to return to his peak.


Back in January on The First Serve, one of our authors, Roddy Reynolds, provided a great insight into Thiem’s stumbles since returning from injury after his first-round loss to Andrey Rublev at the Australian Open - CLICK HERE


One phrase, in particular, stood out in that article. ‘Thiem’s struggle to recapture his best tennis serves as the perfect juxtaposition to Rafael Nadal’s ability to bounce back from injury and add to his record-breaking grand slam tally into perspective.’


Fast forward four months later, and the king of clay is struggling more than ever to stay fit and healthy. Perhaps, it’s the Austrian’s time to reverse the script and once again produce the kind of tennis that made the tennis world appreciate him.

Since then, Thiem has recorded a win-loss record of 11-9 (55%) on the clay. By all means not a stat that will blow you out of the water, but it sure is better than the brutal 0-7 start he suffered. Slowly but surely, a resurgence is growing. When you suffer such a serious injury, it’s equally a mental battle as it is a physical one because it quite often causes doubt to creep in around another potential injury. Thiem is showing signs of this due to his drop off in hitting power and at times becomes too tentative.


In May last year he tweeted, “I am overjoyed to be able to stand on the court every day without pain and worries to be able to do what I love,” before confirming his level of comfort last month. “I have the feeling that I can go full power for many, many shots again with the wrist,” he said after his win against Richard Gasquet in Monte-Carlo. This proves that a mental scar is hovering over him and it’s something that he and his team need to try and rectify in order to take the next step. He’s already proven that he has all the qualities to beat anyone in the world. A dramatic three-set loss to Stefanos Tsitispas in the second round of the Madrid Open three weeks spelled one of the best matches Thiem has played since his comeback. An impressive start to the contest allowed Thiem to push the Greek superstar to the back of the court and for parts dictated proceedings, as his power provided the opportunity to counter-punch forward and approach the net with confidence. What was most eye-catching about his performance was the ability to save break points under pressure having only been broken 2/13 times for the match and staying in the fight. Are those mental scars slowly drifting away? The deciding set tie-break didn’t go his way, but no doubt there were encouraging signs for the two-time French Open runner-up. Now world number 90, Thiem has been carefully easing his way into the second grand slam of the year by entering two challenger events, taking the sensible approach to get his body ready to compete. Before Thiem’s matchup against Tsitipas last month, he spoke about his slow grind back to the top. “Once I was a very tough guy to beat on clay, and it is not the case right now, but I am feeling that I am getting better and back to shape,” he told Tennis Infinity. As Roland-Garros commences on Sunday, how fitting that Dominic Thiem will gain direct entry in the draw by replacing Nadal in his absence considering their long-stretched rivalry. With the king of clay still sidelined, an injury cloud hanging over Djokovic, and Federer’s retirement last year, Thiem’s regular threats in the ‘big three’ is starting to evaporate. Now, he is tasked with the new challenge of wrestling the new generation which possesses so much talent. This is not to say that he will repeat his French Open semi-final and final appearances or even win the tournament because he’s simply not at that stage yet. Nonetheless, it would be premature to rule that out completley for the future as he still has a few more years left in the tank. Looking at it from a seeded players’ perspective though, the one name they will be fearful of facing in the opening round will no doubt be Dominic Thiem. Underestimate him at your peril.


Watching him train on Centre Court in the lead-up to the tournament was a stern reminder of just how much the fans adore him while signing autographs and interacting. That support will only grow further in Nadal’s absence, which may well provide the extra push he needs to outperform in his favourite grand slam.


How far can the Austrian progress in Paris? First hurdle to clear will be unseeded Argentine Pedro Cachin.


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