A New, Single-Minded Dominic Thiem
Dominic Thiem has qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals for the fourth successive season. But, as Simon Cambers writes, this year the Austrian has come to The O2 with a new mindset, a new coach and a new confidence
In a stand-out year, Dominic Thiem has beaten Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. The 26-year-old Austrian, who has qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals for the fourth straight year, has won five titles in 2019, with three on hard courts and a couple on clay, and also reached his second consecutive Roland Garros final.
On his three previous visits to Greenwich, the Austrian has won just one match each time, going out in the group stages on every occasion. But this time might just be different, thanks to a new mindset, a new coach and new confidence on hard courts.
It was in February that Thiem made perhaps the biggest decision of his career. After 15 years under the tutelage of fellow Austrian Gunter Bresnik, who had previously coached Boris Becker and Henri Leconte among many others, Thiem decided it was time for a change. In came a former Olympic champion, Nicolas Massu, a Chilean renowned for his fighting qualities, and the results were immediate.
Only three of Thiem’s 11 career titles, to that point, had come away from clay courts. But in March, on the hard courts of Indian Wells in California, he beat Federer in the final for his first ATP Masters 1000 title on any surface. It was just reward for the work he has been putting in for the past few years to be more aggressive, especially on returns. While on clay he can hang way behind the baseline to return, and with great success, he knew he had to be more attacking on hard courts.
“Indian Wells was just amazing because I came from a very tough period, I’d just split up with my coach, so everything came together,” Thiem has said. “I somehow freed myself and won the tournament, somehow. I didn’t know why that happened, that was amazing, my first ATP Masters 1000 title, I didn’t expect it.”
Bresnik’s rather eccentric training methods, which reportedly included having Thiem put weights around his waist and run home from the woods, were in stark contrast to his demeanour courtside, when he generally sat motionless, wearing his trademark white hat, which was at least one size too small. Massu, by contrast, is a jack in the box. Easy-going off the court, Massu, who won gold medals in singles and doubles at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, is up and down after almost every point, living every moment, and his energy seems to rub off on Thiem.
“It was lucky, not really planned, but it worked out very well from the first moment,” Thiem has said of their partnership. “He knows a lot about tennis so he can give me advice about anything. His favourite surface was clay but his biggest success came on the faster hard court so he can help me a lot with the transition there. He’s also not that old, he played against many guys I’m facing now, and he can give me really good advice for the opponents I face.”
That advice on how to do well on hard courts seems to have had an immediate effect. While Thiem had already been improving away from the clay in the past few years, under Massu he appears to understand what he needs to do. Thiem’s other hard-court titles this year came in Beijing and Vienna while he also won clay-court tournaments in Barcelona and Kitzbuhel.
Massu has spoken of his admiration for how Thiem can “quickly pick up on things”. “He has an incredible ability to learn something and immediately apply it during a match. He’s an amazing talent and extremely disciplined. Ask Dom to do something and he’ll do it – just better. It’s a privilege as a coach to work with a player of that calibre,” Massu said. “I see a lot in his game that resembles my own game and the way I played when I was on tour. He’s got fluid footwork; he’s always moving into position and manoeuvring the ball around the court to line up his best shots. We’ve got different personalities, of course. After all, he’s Austrian and I’m Chilean. But maybe that’s why we complement each other.”
As strong as an ox and with stamina to match, Thiem also has, in his one-handed backhand, one of the most recognisable shots on the ATP Tour. Softly-spoken off the court, and one of the nicest players around, on the court he is a brute, but able to hit with huge spin and angle as well as pure power. It is a brave man who hits his approach shot to the Thiem backhand or who drops the ball short and gives him time.
With the exception of Roland Garros, where he beat Djokovic and reached the final for the second successive year (losing again to Nadal), Thiem’s Grand Slam efforts in 2019 are the only blot on his copybook. At the Australian Open, he retired in the second round because of illness, at Wimbledon, he lost in the first round to former semi-finalist Sam Querrey and at the US Open, he was well below-par as he lost in the first round to Italy’s Thomas Fabbiano.
“He was a bit unlucky,” Massu said. “In Montreal, he got sick and then had to miss Cincinnati. At the US Open he arrived at probably 30 per cent, he wanted to play but he had no energy. So, to [recover] and win in Beijing was really impressive.”
Unlike in previous years, Thiem qualified for London early – it was his victory in Beijing, where he beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final, that sealed his place in this elite eight-man event. In the past, Thiem has been guilty of overplaying; this year, Massu hoped to have Thiem fresher on arriving at the Nitto ATP Finals. “It’s important for me and him [to make the Nitto ATP Finals],” Massu said. “He qualified for the fourth time in a row. We are calm, because we [made] a goal and we achieved something, but we need to continue. Like every time we arrive to a tournament, we try to put everything into that week.”
After such a fine year, reaching the semi-finals would be an improvement on Thiem’s previous efforts at the Nitto ATP Finals. But don’t be surprised if, with his newfound mindset, he goes even further than that.