Dominic Thiem battled back from the verge of defeat to down world No.1 Novak Djokovic in a three-hour, three-set semi-final classic at the ATP Finals.
Men’s tennis has had far too many false dawns for far too long.
You’d be forgiven for looking askance at the state of play in the sport. If someone slipped into a coma in 2007 only to awake in 2020, they would still see Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at the top of the rostrum.
This never-ending bastion needs to be conquered to breathe fresh life into the game.
There is no better-placed man to do that than Dominic Thiem – the ‘Prince of Clay’ is finally delivering on surfaces other than the dirt.
In 2019, on top of reaching another French Open final – a loss to Nadal – he won his first Masters title in Indian Wells, beating Federer in the final. He won two hard-court 500 events in China and Vienna and was a runner-up at the ATP finals, beating Federer and Djokovic along the way.
However, perhaps the most noteworthy stat the 26-year-old earned in 2019 was his 6-2 head to head against ‘Fedalovic’. He was 2-1 against Djokovic, 1-1 against Nadal and 3-0 against Federer.
You would think this would give his grand slam credentials a dose of verisimilitude. So far, however, it has not.
Thiem has no grand slams to speak of. Apart from his French Open run, Thiem won just one match in the slams in 2019. First and second-round defeats are unthinkable to the big three.
According to ATP tour statistics from 2017-19, Thiem is not where he needs to be on a handful of key areas. Unlike the 1990s, return kings, not servers, rule the roost, and the likes of Djokovic and Nadal are way out in front in that regard.
Thiem is just outside the top 20 (2017-19) for the percentage of serve points won, return games won and break points converted.
He has produced solid if unspectacular gains in the serving department: serve percentages, points won on serve, service games won, and the average of aces and double faults per match.
The Austrian has risen from 29th in 2017 to 22nd in 2018 and last year he was 14th. When it comes to the bit between the ears, however, Thiem has made gigantic strides.
For break points converted, break points saved, tie breaks won and deciding sets won, Thiem was ahead of Djokovic and only behind Nadal and Federer. This is a far cry from 2017 when he ranked 64th and 2018 when he finished tenth.
Last year’s shock decision to part company with Gunter Bresnik, his coach since childhood, and hire of Nicolas Massu appears to have paid dividends.
Thiem is more aggressive than ever before, he stands closer to the baseline on hard courts and he steps into his single-handed backhand more often. This way he takes charge of the point earlier and dictates with his huge groundstrokes.
In regards to the backhand, this does not come easy to him as his weight transfer typically shoots backwards, away from the baseline. This becomes apparent when he plays Nadal on clay as the heavy topspin up high to Thiem’s backhand pins him back and prevents him from staying in a position to dictate the point.
Aside from that, Thiem has added more variety to his game, with the drop shot in particular working to great effect. That shot, especially on clay, is now one of the best on tour for both its disguise and execution, and for his decision-making for when it should be used.
Coupled with his brutish groundstrokes, heavy topspin and considerable margin for error, Thiem has all the tools to win a major. But will he do it?
Next up is world No.1 and 19-time grand slam champion Nadal in the Australian Open quarter-finals.
If there is a slam to play Rafa, this could be Thiem’s best shot at beating him. Although the Spaniard reached last year’s final, it is his least successful slam to date, with his solitary win coming back in 2009.
The court is not playing particularly quickly, the balls are not bouncing particularly high, and Thiem is as fit as just about anybody on tour. The ‘Prince’ can go toe to toe with the ‘King’ and has the capabilities to come out on top.
Thiem regularly beat the best in 2019. It is only a matter of time before he breaks his grand slam duck. It may not be in Australia, but it is coming.