I have been touting the prospects of Dominic Thiem for some time. Standing at 6’1″, well built, and possessing heavy and penetrating groundstrokes and a serve to match, I believe he is the best prospect of the current crop of players in their late teens to early twenties.
He first caught my attention in 2014 when he recorded an impressive win over Wawrinka, then a recent Grand Slam and Masters Champion, in Madrid. He went on to continue his fine clay pedigree, falling to Goffin in his first final at just age twenty, before backing it up last year with three titles on the red stuff.
His win in the semifinals in Argentina against Nadal, indisputably the greatest clay court player in history, was no flash in the pan. Yes, the Spaniard is perhaps past his best, lacking a step and some of the zip of old on his forehand, but he is competitive. Fifth ranked in the world, a recent finalist in Qatar, and semifinalist in the World Tour Finals, it took Thiem a deciding set tiebreak after facing down a match point against him to win through to the final.
Thiem represents a style of play that is one of two that can and increasingly do from the baseline. Wawrinka, Almagro, Soderling have on days of inspiration literally been able to bully Nadal on a clay court. Consistently heavy shots with big serves to set them up have left Nadal listless. The other, applied by Djokovic with regularity since 2011, and more recently by Ferrer and Murray, is to hang back with Nadal and rely on speed and defence, Rafa’s own hallmarks, and attack a short ball or draw the error. Thiem is needless to say a practitioner of the former style and crept over the line with it against Nadal.
In the Austrian’s fearless display he maintained the offence throughout. He hit over ten aces, and enough serves that were not outright winners that produced a short return he could in turn pummel away for a winner or force the error. Nadal in turn played some great defence, but unlike in years prior he was unable to do so consistently and lacked a killer instinct. When Thiem went down whilst serving to stay in the match at 5-6 in the third my thought was ‘curtains’. Too many times in the past have I seen a younger and inspired player push Nadal to the brink only to let inexperience tell and fall at the final hurdle. Thiem kept admirably cool headed, not least in saving a match point that game with aggressive consistency. In the tiebreak that ensued it was Nadal who looked the younger and inexperienced one, double faulting and playing tentatively, whilst Thiem recorded aces and blistering groundstrokes to build up what proved to be an insurmountable lead.
Does this represent a passing of the torch? Not just yet. The Austrian needs to record these kinds of wins regularly and at larger, more prestigious events. The forehand broke down at times, his signature backhand, rightly lauded, was shanked at times and looked vulnerable when he was rushed, as is inevitable with a long take-back. I believe that these creases will be ironed out with experience, and that we shall see Thiem become one of the preeminent clay court players on the tour come his mid to late twenties, challenging for and winning the biggest events on the surface, as well as on the increasingly slower hard courts that make up large sections of the calendar. With such huge hitting I wouldn’t bet against him.
Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): Carine06