ATP

Thiem’s Trouble Returning to the Top of Tennis

Dominic Thiem was one of the most consistently high-performing superstars in tennis since his breakout season in 2014. He and Rafael Nadal were the only two players to finish the year in the top 10 for all of 2016-2020. Thiem, with one of the most effective groundstroke combos in the world, powered his way to three grand slam finals in less than three years starting with the 2018 French Open.

Though Thiem was known as a clay-court beast, he had a lesser reputation on the other surfaces. He even once said that no amount of time can take away his comfort on the clay. However, Thiem’s monumental 2020 dispelled all notions of hard-court mediocrity. He upset No. 2 Nadal in the year’s Australian Open quarterfinals before making, and nearly winning, the final against Djokovic.

Later in 2020, after the pandemic lockdown started to loosen up, was an infamous U.S. Open in which 1-seed Novak Djokovic went awry. Thiem was the second seed, and after dominating the early stages of the tournament he reached yet another final. But the Austrian started off very slow, dropping the first two sets against Germany’s Sascha Zverev. Thiem made a remarkable comeback and finally got his slam victory in a thrilling fifth-set tiebreak. Now having made waves on both clay and hard courts, it was clear that he would be a mainstay near the top of the sport for years to come.

Or at least, that he had the potential to stay there. He started off 2021 underperforming notably and failed to make a tournament semifinal until May. After a first-round French Open upset at the hands of Pablo Andújar, Thiem was not able to finish a match for the remainder of the year. Perhaps fatigue from the year before, combined with a nagging wrist injury that eventually required surgery, contributed to Thiem sitting at year-end No. 15. That ranking was primarily due to an unprecedented protection of ranking points due to pandemic travel and vaccination restrictions.

Fast forward to late 2022 where Thiem had fallen out of the top 300, and you see the shell of a former top three player. His forehand has steadily lost effectiveness since his injury in 2021, and the shot’s post-injury miles per hour average has dropped nearly three units. Even his booming, high-spin high-speed one-hander, has lost some oomph. In many ways, the player Thiem has been since injury is nothing reminiscent of what he once was. Perhaps he will never again reach the heights he once could.

But even for great players, this post-injury trouble is predictable – especially among those with wrist injuries. Many ATP players report that wrist injuries are especially painful on heavy forehands, and Thiem historically hits one of the heaviest balls on tour. Thiem’s combination of a heavy forehand and an aggressive baseline style has not been nearly as fruitful as it used to be, and a good portion of his poor play has to be from the injury.

And in all fairness, it can’t be easy returning from a year-long injury. Tennis fans want to see Thiem succeed. But it takes time to make a comeback. He has had a few good results recently, ending 2022 with two semifinals runs in his final three tournaments. In the 2022 European Open, he knocked off No. 11 Hubert Hurkacz, and last week in Estoril, he impressed in a 6-2, 6-2 victory over upstart American Ben Shelton. He continued the momentum this week by beating Richard Gasquet 6-1, 6-4 in his opener at the Monte-Carlo Masters before being taken down in straight sets by 6-seed Holger Rune Wednesday.

The process of a return has been laborious for Thiem, but each win counts. Thiem will always have his prowess on the clay surface – you don’t get the name “Prince of Clay” for nothing. He should have opportunities to make deep tournament runs for the remainder of the spring, with Barcelona, Madrid and Rome presenting possible chances for Thiem to gain chunks of ranking points.

His ceiling is probably no longer that of a top five player. In all honesty, a top 30 trajectory is the best I can see Thiem morphing into for the rest of his career. He has the makings of a successful, if not high-risk, high-reward power player with a good amount of athleticism and high tennis IQ. Thiem can strike the ball as clean as anyone in the world, except for maybe Jannik Sinner, and can still serve 20 aces in a match. He has a well-known kick serve that he leverages well on clay and will likely gain the reputation of being a “wild-card that nobody wants to play” in any tournament on the surface.

For the sake of tennis fans everywhere, we hope Dominic Thiem can become the force he used to be. For his sake, I hope he can perform well under the bright lights and experience the joy that comes from winning at the highest levels. But for the sake of the sport, it is a shame that a great ambassador and a beautiful athlete can no longer perform at the level he used to. Hopefully we all get to see the Dominic Thiem we used to know.