The next generation of tennis stars are getting set to take over the ATP Tour. Here’s why Dominic Thiem leads the list as the game’s brightest future.
One of the biggest questions in tennis, specifically in the ATP tour, is when the changing of the guard will begin. There’s been a huge amount of young talent entering the tour in the past few years. Half of the top-20 players are currently under the age of 26, five of whom sit in the top-10. With more and more youngsters cracking the quarter and semi-finals of major tournaments, it’s clear that they will soon be upending the reign of the Big 3 at the top of the rankings. Let’s take a look at one of the tour’s brightest stars, why he’s set for a big 2020, and also why he isn’t quite there yet.
Thiem is arguably the tour’s best young star; at 26 years old, he’s already reached the finals of three Grand Slam events in the last three years. He’s been increasingly productive on tour and hit his high with 5 titles and one additional finals appearance in 2019. His year began with a few early exits due to injury, but came back extremely well with a victory at Indian Wells and a straight-set victory in Barcelona over 11-time champion, Rafael Nadal. He continued very strongly at Roland Garros, where he bested Novak Djokovic in 5 sets en route to the championship match. He played a hard-fought 4 sets vs Nadal but ultimately lost. He continued his hot streak and collected two hard court titles, along with an appearance in the Nitto ATP Tour Finals in London.
Why he’s set for a big 2020: Thiem’s best year was 2019, that is no question. His ability to play on clay has only improved up until this point and will become a formidable threat to the dominance of Nadal in the near future. Thiem’s big breakthrough into the 2020 Australian Open finals finally put him over the hump on Grand Slam hard court tournaments. Thiem’s aggressive one-handed backhand is one of the best on tour and easily the strongest shot in his game. His shot-shaping ability is among the best, especially on clay, where his heavy topspin groundstrokes pair well on the heavy surface. Thiem’s serve has steadily improved and, as of recent, has been one of the best. His 85.5% of service games won in the last 52 weeks ranks 13th on tour and his 65% first serve percentage ranks above both Roger Federer and Nadal, two of the tour’s best servers, in that same time frame.
His 2020 Australian Open finals appearance says a lot about the momentum he carried from the previous year. Breaking through on hard courts is a key aspect in Thiem’s rise as a potential superstar on tour, and he’s certainly heading in the right direction.
Why he isn’t: Thiem has yet to perform well at all on any grass-court events, especially Wimbledon. His best result came in 2017, where he reached the quarterfinals before losing in 5 sets to veteran Tomas Berdych. Thiem’s biggest weakness in his game is his grass-court play, mainly due to the fast pace that serves him at a disadvantage for his heavy topspin game. While not a huge cause for concern, Thiem needs to start performing consistently at Wimbledon if he is to be a lock into the top 3 by the end of the 2020 season. To add to this, Thiem’s overall consistency, while improved from previous years, needs to be more so in 2020. Most recently losing to Gianluca Mayer in the quarterfinals of the Rio Open (February 2020) in straight sets, Thiem needs to improve on his consistency and both together at least two good tournament showings in a row. His ATP 250 title in Kitzbuhel was followed by a drubbing loss to Daniil Medvedev in Montreal and a first-round exit at the US Open to 87th ranked Thomas Fabbiano. Similarly, Thiem’s win in Vienna was followed by an underwhelming performance in one of the year’s best non-major tournaments. He was defeated in the Round of 16 by Grigor Dimitrov at the Masters 1000 in Paris.
It is extremely difficult to put together a good string of tournaments in a row. Only the tour’s absolute best can accomplish such a task, but if Thiem wants to put himself amongst those players (a feat is a definitely capable of), he needs to become more consistent, as well as improve his game outside of clay to become less of a clay-court specialist and more of an all-around winner.
A final bit of positivity: Thiem’s rise is strikingly similar to that of his biggest clay-court rival. The beginning of Nadal’s career was defined by his emerging dominance in clay tournaments and his inability to come out on top over Roger Federer on other surfaces. It took Nadal until the 2008 Wimbledon Championship to finally emerge as more than just a “dirt rat”. Now, Nadal has 19 major titles, 7 of which came on hard and grass courts. Nadal, while still be defined as the King of Clay, is most certainly an all-around player whose heavy topspin game is still extremely successful, regardless of the surface he plays on.