The vast accomplishments of this revered foursome have been almost unimaginable. Federer finished five seasons (2004-2007, and 2009) stationed at No. 1 in the world, spent a record 302 weeks as the No. 1 ranked player in the Emirates ATP Rankings, and remains among the top three in the world less than six months before turning 35. The Swiss owns a men’s record 17 major titles.
Nadal ended three years (2008, 2010 and 2013) at No. 1 in the world. He never failed to finish a year inside the top five from 2005-2015, and the dynamic Spaniard has won 14 majors, including an astounding nine French Open crowns. Djokovic has been the top ranked player in tennis all but one of the past five years. He has captured five of the last seven Grand Slam tournaments, amassing eleven of these premier prizes in all. While Murray has succeeded less prodigiously than his iconic contemporaries, the fact remains that the British standout has secured both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles, along with an Olympic gold medal. Moreover, the man has reached seven additional ” Big Four” finals, losing four of those meetings to Djokovic and three versus Federer. And we must not take for granted the recent exploits of Stan Wawrinka, now a two-time victor at the majors.
The aforementioned men remain crucial in boosting the popularity of tennis. And yet, the fact remains that we need young players to eventually fill the shoes of the superstars who will one day depart. I am becoming increasingly encouraged about the bright prospects for a surging competitor from Austria, a 22-year-old with a large heart and a strong will, a fellow who has demonstrated over the last three weeks that he has the capacity to become a great player in the not too distant future. Dominic Thiem was ranked No. 39 in the world at the end of 2014. He stood at No. 20 when the curtain closed on 2015. Now he lives proudly at No. 14, with a clear path toward a top ten slot within the next several weeks.
Thiem’s recent run of success has been very impressive. First, he won the Argentina Open in Buenos Aires on clay, toppling Rafael Nadal from match point down in the semifinals, taking the final against Nicolas Almagro in a final set tie-break. He made it to the semifinals in Rio de Janeiro the following week before running out of energy and inspiration. This past week, Thiem made a difficult surface change from clay to hard courts at the Abierto Mexicano Telcel event in Acapulco, and came through stylishly to claim that title, toppling the seasoned professional Bernie Tomic in the final 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-3.
That title round encounter was beautifully played on both sides of the net. Tomic was up a service break in every set, but Thiem fought with quiet ferocity and heavy artillery to achieve a victory he richly deserved. Tomic is currently playing the finest tennis of his career at the age of 23. The Australian has an underrated first serve, a sound and penetrating two-handed backhand, and a flat forehand produced with a short backswing that is hard for opponents to exploit.
Thiem, however, has a wider range of assets. He has a considerably bigger backswing than Tomic, but his explosive forehand is one of the heaviest shots in tennis, and his one-handed backhand is spectacular. He laces it down the line with topspin, taking the ball exceedingly early. He goes to the slice off that side judiciously, and can drive it crosscourt with a lot of sizzle. On top of his towering ground stroke strengths, Thiem is developing an extraordinary serve that may one day be the cornerstone of his game.
He disguises his delivery awfully well, particularly in the ad court. On that side, he employs one of the best kick serves I have seen in some time, making it land short near the sideline, getting so much spin that the ball bounds almost impossibly high and wide. Because Thiem is so effective with that heavy kicker, he creates many opportunities to serve down the T for aces. He caught Tomic off guard with the mixture of those two serves repeatedly over the course of the contest.
After the first set was locked at 1-1, Tomic took control for a while. He held at 30 for 2-1 and then broke a still unsettled Thiem in the fourth game. Thiem got to 30-30 but timidly netted a slice backhand off a deep return from the Australian. When Thiem was break point down, he overcooked a forehand, sending his shot long, handing Tomic a 3-1 lead. Tomic held at love for 4-1. He had won 12 of the last 16 points, putting himself in an enviable position to seal that opening set. But, as of late, Thiem seems to have an uncanny knack for playing his best when his back is against the wall. Propelled by an ace down the T for 30-15, Thiem held at 30 for 2-4. Yet Tomic was unruffled, holding at 30 as Thiem miss-hit a backhand wide.
Tomic was precisely where he wanted to be, ahead 5-2, closing in on a first set triumph. In four service games, he had conceded only five points. Tomic was looking entirely calm and confident. Although Thiem held for 3-5—serving a pair of aces in a love game—Tomic had the chance to serve for the set at 5-3. But he wavered there, losing his serve at love, missing two out of four first serves in that game. Thiem was in command now, serving three aces, holding at love, reaching 5-5. He had won 12 consecutive points from 2-5.
But Tomic reasserted himself, holding at love with an ace for 6-5 before Thiem retaliated again, holding at 15 with an ace for 6-6. The ensuing tie-break was hotly contested. Until Tomic led 3-2, not a point was won against the server. Tomic got the first mini-break for 4-2 on an unprovoked error off the forehand from an aggressive Thiem. Thiem followed with an ace out wide to close the gap to 4-3. Tomic promptly advanced to 5-3 with an unstoppable first serve. But, serving on the next point, he faltered, missing an inside out forehand rather tamely.
Thiem could have been down triple set point, but instead was back on serve. He used his kick serve to set up a backhand winner down the line for 5-5, then moved to 6-5 when Tomic missed a difficult running forehand down the line. Tomic sternly stood his ground. Serving at set point down, he prevailed in a 16 stroke exchange as Thiem could not properly control a forehand on the stretch. But, at 6-6, Tomic was barely off the mark with a forehand inside-in. It was 7-6 in favor of Thiem, with the Austrian serving. Thiem made the most of the opportunity. With both men striking the ball cleanly from the backcourt, Thiem was the better man, winning a 24 stroke rally as Tomic pulled a forehand crosscourt wide from a tough position. The set belonged to Thiem, 8-6 in the tie-break.
Early in the second set, Thiem had a fleeting opportunity to get ahead, perhaps for good. Tomic was serving at 1-2, and down double break point. The Australian could not afford to cede any ground here, and he did not. From 15-40, he collected four straight points, making every first serve count on his way to 2-2. Tomic then played an outstanding game to break for 3-2. From 15-15, he released a forehand winner down the line, a surgically struck backhand passing shot winner up the line, and a superb forehand inside-in winner. That blizzard of brilliance lifted Tomic firmly into the lead. He held at 15 for 4-2. Two games later, he served an ace at break point down, tenaciously holding on for 5-3. Serving for the set at 5-4, Tomic erased two break points against him—both with service winners— and soon sealed the set, taking it 6-4.
From 30-30 in the opening game of the third set, Thiem failed to connect with an inside out forehand and then narrowly missed a forehand down the line. Tomic had the immediate break for 1-0, but Thiem answered at once, breaking back for 1-1 at 15 after making a winning backhand return down the line for 15-40. Thiem had restored order in his own mind. He held at 30 for 2-1 and broke in the fourth game. A double fault from Tomic at 30-30 damaged the Australian considerably. Serving at 3-1, 40-30, Thiem aced Tomic out wide with that deadly kicker.
Thiem was now invulnerable. Although Tomic held on tenuously for 2-4, the Austrian remained resolute, holding at love for 5-2, releasing a pair of aces in that stellar game. Serving for the match two games later, Thiem did not concede a point, concluding the match with his 22nd ace. He put 78% of his first serves in play, winning 82% of those points. His 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-3 triumph was a testament to his durability as a competitor, the depth of his determination and his match playing capabilities.
This was a significant step taken by the industrious Austrian. Thiem had never before captured a tournament at the ATP World Tour 500 level. Thiem has now won 13 of the 14 matches he has played in February. So where does he go from here?
I believe Thiem will find himself among the top eight seeds at the French Open. He has improved markedly on all surfaces, but is at his best on clay.
He strikes me as a player with the mentality of a champion, as someone who will add substantially to his stature before too long. I can envision Thiem winning majors in the years ahead, but he must keep progressing through the rest of 2016 to set the stage for the loftier territory he should inhabit in the future. Dominic Thiem is a powerhouse, but he is also technically versatile, tactically flexible and a gifted shotmaker. I would be very surprised if he did not make it to the latter stages of a Grand Slam event this year, and the feeling grows that he will be earnestly fighting for a top five ranking by the end of the season. He knows where he is going and will figure out what it will take to get there.