Stars of Tomorrow: Dominic Thiem
First there is a brief rocking motion, then a pause, bending of the knees followed by youthful spring into a first serve that is flat, well timed and devastatingly powerful. Dominic Thiem gets down low to strike his aesthetically pleasing single-handed backhand – one for the purists – and he is quick to move up the court for his forehand.
It is 12 years since his father had the gates of Gunter Bresnik’s tennis academy opened to him in Vienna. Wolfgang Thiem, has been a tennis coach like his wife, Karin, since the age of 20. He hoped to be mentored in the science of coaching professional players by Bresnik, a former trainer of Becker, Amos Mansdorf and Patrick McEnroe. The dream became reality and changed the family’s life.
“My father wanted to switch to professional coaching and he was hired at the professional academy of Gunter,” Thiem exclusively told ATPWorldTour.com, having qualified for the ABN AMRO World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam. “At some point he told Gunter that he had a son, me, who liked to play tennis and asked him to take a look. I was probably 11.”
With an eye for natural talent, Bresnik agreed. “I played once a week with Gunter, then the number of lessons developed slowly and he became my full-time coach two years later,” he recalled.
“When I first hit with Gunter, I had a double-handed backhand and I was a very defensive player. He changed everything – switching me to a one-handed backhand and to adopt a more aggressive game style. It was tough as I was the top junior in Austria but my ranking dropped as I had changed everything. But I totally trusted Gunter, as I knew he was a great coach.”
As a teenager Thiem also had to deal with growing pains. “I had a lot of problems growing up,” he admitted. “I grew 16 centimetres between 16 and 17. My immune system was weak and I was sick often.”
Thiem started travelling internationally as a 13 year old. On 11 December 2011, his junior career came to a close on winning the Orange Bowl title and he looked back on a runner-up finish at Roland Garros in May with pride. But things quickly turned around.
“In hindsight, the juniors’ is a sheltered circuit,” said Thiem. “There are always only a handful of top juniors. You are a big fish in a small pool. You are one of the stars, but when you come to ITF Futures level no one cares. In fact, they probably are extra motivated and want to beat you.
“Life as a junior to life on the senior tour is completely different. To be a good junior does not mean you will have a good successful career as a pro. I had a very good final year, reaching the Roland Garros final and winning the Orange Bowl. Honestly, I thought it was going to be easier in the pros. But in my first year, I had so many first round losses in ITF Futures.”
It took Thiem a full year to realise that he had to worker harder. “When I lost five first rounds in a row, I remember both of them saying, ‘It’s going to be tough. Nobody said this was going to be easy.’ I never doubted that I could not make it one day. I just had to knuckle down.
“It is really tough to make the step. You have to always work hard and get used to the levels of the professional tour – from Futures to ATP Challenger Tour to the ATP World Tour. Each level is completely different.”
Bresnik and his father always offered encouragement. “Gunter has always found a good balance between letting me figure things out and offering his advice and years of expertise.”
Last season, he rose from No. 304 to No. 139 at the end of December in the Emirates ATP Rankings on the back of two quarter-final runs at the bet-at-home Cup Kitzbühel and the Erste Bank Open, plus two ATP Challenger Tour titles. Beating one of his childhood idols and fellow Austrian, Jurgen Melzer, in Kitzbühel and getting Jo-Wilfried Tsonga hot under the collar in a third set tie-break in Vienna, reaffirmed his belief that the sacrifices were worth it.
So far in 2014, 6’1” Thiem has qualified for three tournaments – the Qatar ExxonMobil Open, the Australian Open, where he lost to Kevin Anderson in the second round, and Rotterdam. “I think having to qualifying for ATP events, rather than receiving a wild card, has been a big experience,” he said. “I improve the most when I play matches against these guys, so it can be an advantage sometimes playing qualifying. At the ATP level, there are so many tight matches, where two or three points decide the match. The mental game is important.
“I have to have a consistent game and I have to improve my fitness. To play every week at this level, to defend points – which I will have to do for the first time in the autumn – will be a new experience.”
Thiem is also benefitting from regular practice with Ernests Gulbis, who is currently No. 24 in the Emirates ATP Rankings and is coached by Bresnik. “I am learning a lot from Ernests in our training in Vienna. It was wonderful that such a good player came to our academy and that I can practise with him.”
By playing ATP World Tour events in the next four weeks and one stop on the ATP Challenger Tour in Dallas, Thiem is giving himself the best possible chance to soon break into the Top 100 of the Emirates ATP Rankings.
By November, he hopes to sit comfortably among the elite. “It will mean that I will be in the main draw of the Australian Open [in 2015],” the World No. 113 explained. “I hope then I can play consistently at the bigger tournaments and I also want to play well in Kitzbuhel and Vienna, my home tournaments.”