Madrid: Thiem d. Wawrinka
On Monday, looking ahead to today’s second-round match between Stanislas Wawrinka and Dominic Thiem, I wrote, “Last year on this court, in this round, Grigor Dimitrov knocked off Novak Djokovic. Is something similar possible here?”
Something very similar was possible, as Thiem, a 20-year-old Austrian, came back to upset world No. 3 Wawrinka, 1-6, 6-2, 6-4. The comparison was an easy one to make. Last year Dimitrov was the hot breakthrough commodity on the ATP tour; so far this year, it’s been Thiem. Today he recorded his biggest career win, and became the first under-21 male to beat a Top 5 player since 2009, when Juan Martin del Potro knocked off Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at the U.S. Open at age 20.
Even more impressive, Thiem beat Wawrinka on a night when Stan was playing pretty well—this wasn’t a gift or an horrendously off day from him. In fact, by the middle of the first set, it looked like Stan had brought his imperious form straight from Monte Carlo.
This time, though, the Man couldn’t red-line his game forever, and Thiem was there to take advantage when his one-handed backhand lasers stopped firing. In fact, Thiem seemed to literally pick up where Wawrinka left off in the second set—he's a kind of mirror image of the Swiss. Thiem's one-handed backhand is just as elaborately lethal, and his forehand looked even better today. Racquet-head speed is the key for Thiem on both sides. He can whip through his backhand and snap off winners with it from anywhere; with his forehand, he gets enough topspin to control even the hardest swings and biggest cuts. When he’s in the flow, there’s a vicious precision to both shots. The question in the future will be how long he can keep those ground-stroke whips, which aren't always easy to time, under control.
By the end of the second set, Thiem was in full control. He had stepped to the middle of the court, while Wawrinka was forced to scramble and slide in the far corners. For the moment, we can table, or at least quiet, the talk about Stan becoming the first player since Jim Courier in 1992 to win the Aussie-French double. Wawrinka is still a strong contender in Paris, but it's also clear he hasn't turned into an entirely new man at 29.
Thiem didn’t finish with great numbers—15 winners, 30 unforced errors—but his poise down the stretch mattered much more. He had a few chances to fold, and if he had, no one would have thought any less of his performance. But that extra bit of topspin on his forehand served him well in the clutch; Thiem could swing away and know that he was still playing with margin. That’s a nice combination to have. That's a combination we'll be seeing again.