From Military Service To London, Thiem Ready To Make Debut
A debutant at this year’s Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, Dominic Thiem is the youngest in the field. The 23-year-old Austrian also knows one end of a rifle from the other, having completed his compulsory national service.
How many tennis players could dismantle, clean and reassemble a rifle? Or know how to march or apply camouflage paint properly? Alternatively, how many soldiers can propel a single-handed backhand at speeds in excess of 90mph? Or will ever find themselves on this most challenging of terrain, an indoor hard court at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals?
Imagine a Venn diagram, with one circle showing military expertise and the other showing exquisite tennis talent currently operating on the ATP World Tour, and in the intersection you’ll find just one man: Dominic Thiem. Qualifying for this tournament is an astonishing achievement, even more so when you’re 23 years old, and your ascent has included interruptions for mandatory military service. In Austria, there are no exemptions for world-class athletes and so from late 2014 until the spring of last year, Thiem was a soldier as well as a tennis player. While he was allowed to travel to tournaments, whenever he was back in Austria he had to report to base every morning at dawn.
Clearly, Thiem is a happier tennis player than he was squaddie – he has said he didn’t particularly enjoy the experience. But it hardly seems to have slowed down his rise into the Top 10 – he is the youngest player in the field at Greenwich. Aside from the military, there can hardly be another sphere of life whose hierarchy is as close-defined as tennis, with the Emirates ATP Rankings giving the clearest indication of the progress he has made since the days when he was a mere foot soldier of the courts. “For someone his age, he carries himself very well on and off the court,” Novak Djokovic has observed.
“He’s the leader of a new generation, very powerful, and has a lot of strength and variety in his game. We’re going to see a lot of him in the future if he continues doing well.”
Among Thiem’s other accomplishments this season, he achieved the rare double of beating Rafael Nadal on clay (that victory came in Buenos Aires) and Roger Federer on grass (in Stuttgart, having defeated the Swiss on clay earlier in the year in Rome). There isn’t a surface he doesn’t feel comfortable on, with tournament titles coming on hard, grass and clay courts – in addition to his victories in Buenos Aires and Stuttgart, he was also the champion on the hard of Acapulco and on the clay of Nice. What’s more, he reached the semi-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time at Roland Garros, as well as cutting his ranking to a single digit for the first time, and reinforcing his reputation for being the Stakhanovite of the ATP World Tour – to the point that the New York Times described him as ‘The Hardest Working Man in Tennis’.
This isn’t a young man who plays tennis for the arc lights or to stuff his racquet bag with dollars. Off the court, he is still as understated as he ever was – on those rare occasions this year when he hasn’t been travelling, he has returned to his parents’ farm. “Dominic is a very special guy,” said Peter Moizi, an Austrian tennis writer. “He’s quiet, though he can be very funny when he’s with his friends. He is also very polite. After all the success he’s had, he’s not interested in money or buying expensive cars or expensive clothes. It’s funny, how many 23-year-old tennis champions would still be living with their parents? After this tournament, he will be moving to an apartment outside Vienna, but until now he has been living in his old bedroom.”
There’s something about Austrians who appear at this tournament, with Thiem the first to appear in the singles field since Thomas Muster in 1997. In his time, Muster, a former World No.1, was the Iron Man of tennis, such was his physical indomitability and his wish to grind all-comers into the baseline. If Thiem is a gentler soul, and isn’t nearly as combative as Muster once was, there’s no mistaking his appetite for hard labour.
That’s something which comes naturally to him, but it has also been enhanced by his long association with his coach, Gunter Bresnik, who once guided Boris Becker, and who demands that Thiem gives his all, in every gym workout, training session or match. Examine Thiem’s background and you keep coming back, press-up by press-up, to the theme of graft and toil – one of the myths that has built up around him is that, for a physical workout, he once carried tree trunks on his back. Whether that’s true or not, the story hardly does him any harm.
For those who may not be aware, Thiem is pronounced TEAM. But, for all the playful comments about his surname – riffing on the David Brent-style line that “there’s no ‘i’ in team” – it’s plain you can’t make it to the top on your own. While Thiem’s parents are both professional tennis coaches, he has worked with Bresnik since he was 11 years old. So more than half his life has been spent listening to Bresnik’s instruction (perhaps think of him as the sergeant major of the practice courts).
Bresnik’s influence extends to breaking down Thiem’s game, including persuading him to make the bold move of ditching a two-handed backhand for a single-handed stroke, while also changing his mindset to become much more aggressive between the tramlines. These days, when given half a chance, Thiem won’t think twice about clubbing the ball past an opponent, and there’s also no avoiding the army metaphors.
In Thiem’s hand, a tennis racquet really is a piece of military hardware.