The Apprentice

by: Steve Tignor | May 14, 2015

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After cracking the Top 40 last August, Thiem is just barely hanging onto his spot in the Top 50. (AP Photos)

“That caught him by surprise,” the TV commentator said as Dominic Thiem shanked a backhand high and wide of the court. 

“I think Thiem has just been over-pressing a little all match,” the same commentator said after the next point, in which the 21-year-old Austrian launched a forehand 10 feet long. 

“He was caught out of position on that one,” was how the announcer described the following point. This time, Thiem’s opponent, Stan Wawrinka, had pushed him off the baseline with a heavy backhand, and then, seeing the opening in the front court, sliced a delicate drop shot into it. Thiem came up a step short when he tried to track it down.

This made the score 5-4, 40-0 in the second set; triple match point for Wawrinka. There hadn’t been much difference between the two players on this day. Wawrinka had won the first set in a tiebreaker, and had broken Thiem once in the second. Despite their nine-year age difference, the two men’s games had looked like mirror images much of the time. You might even call Thiem a Baby Wawa: He has similarly heavy shots, a similar bullet serve, and the same signature stroke, a big-whip, one-handed backhand. 

Still, only one of them could win, and now Stan stood a point away. He spun a serve in. Thiem, perhaps remembering that he had tried for too much on his forehand earlier in the game, overcompensated and guided a backhand return safely into the center of the court. A little too safely. Wawrinka smacked it away for a 7-6 (3), 6-4 win. Nothing that Thiem had tried in that final game had worked out as planned.

Such is life for an up-and-coming men’s tennis pro in 2015. As the game has aged, and stars’ primes have extended into their 30s, the learning curve for the next generation has also grown longer. So long, in the cases of ever-hopefuls like Tomas Berdych, Gael Monfils, Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and others, that it can seem at times as if we’ll never find out whether they’re going to fulfill their potential or not. From the physical to the technical to the tactical to the psychological, tennis has never required such an extended and intensive apprenticeship. Wawrinka himself didn’t learn how to mine the most from his big game until he was nearly 30.

Thiem, unlike the prodigies of the past, says he realizes that the road to tennis glory is long and the bar is high, and that you shouldn’t set your sights on clearing it right away. He has no choice, really: After a breakthrough 2014, in which he reached No. 36, he has been struck with what the ATP’s own website has called “second season syndrome.” Coming to Rome, his record was 9-10 for the year, and last week his ranking dropped five spots to No. 49. 

Perhaps worse, Thiem’s good days have been followed immediately by more struggles. After reaching the quarterfinals and taking a set from Andy Murray in Miami, he said, “For sure I had quite a terrible start to the season, so I’m happy with the outcome of this tournament. Now comes probably my favorite surface [clay]. Now I have a good feeling after this tournament. It gave me a confidence boost.”

In his next three events, all of them on that favorite surface, Thiem lost twice in the first round, and once in the third round, each time to a player ranked below him.

In 2015, by his own admission, Thiem has learned about an under-appreciated downside to success on tour: The art of defending.

“It’s very tough so far,” Thiem told ATPWorldTour.com on Monday, for an article entitled "Thiem's Tough Times." “It’s been different defending points each week, and having the players know me now.”

The pressure of defending points is rarely discussed by those of us who have never had to do it, but it must be relentless—you pay for your own good play from the previous year, and you’re constantly measured against your past self. The greatest point-defender of all on clay, Rafael Nadal, has talked about how, over the course of his career, he has had to learn to forget about what he’s defending, forget the year before, and play each event as if he’s gathering points for a new season. Anything else would make him feel, well, defensive.

“I’m still trying to find my game on a consistent level,” Thiem said this week. “That will be my next step. Last year, I played without giving a s**t. Now I’m starting to think more.”

Thinking, of course, is dangerous for any athlete. But Thiem seems to have the right, level-headed attitude about his career, and about what’s possible for a young player today. He is, as the cliché goes, all about the process rather than the results, and he knows the process of becoming a top-flight tennis player is more involved than ever. He's even trying to ignore where he stands on the ATP totem pole from week to week.

“This season I don’t have a specific ranking goal,” he said in Miami. “I just want to develop my game. It just takes time to develop. I’m also happy if I stay in the rankings like I am now. Just don’t want to drop too much ... It would be OK for me if I stay Top 40 or 50. Main thing I think this year is to develop my game to be a really good player when I’m 23, 24.”

That last sentence is a sign of the times. Pete Sampras and Roger Federer were at their respective peaks when they were 24, and Nadal has said that, even in his teens, he was desperate to be among the best in the world. In some ways, expectations turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. It hardly seems like a coincidence that in March Thiem said that he would be OK with being ranked “40 or 50,” and that two months later he’s ranked 49th. 

Yet if he has been tracking the stop-and-start progress of guys like Dimitrov and Raonic over the last three years, you can see why he wouldn’t want to get ahead of himself. I liked Thiem’s answer in Miami, when he was asked if this was the time for a new ATP generation to “take over.” He, rightly, wasn’t ready to bury the Big 4 just yet.

“It’s nice there are new guys coming,” Thiem said, “but really take over, I think doesn’t happen yet. Because if you watch the last finals, the last titles, everything is going with Murray, Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal.”

It will be interesting to compare Thiem to Nick Kyrgios in the coming months and years. The Aussie is a year and a half younger, is ranked 20 spots higher, and as of now has the edge when it comes to firepower and self-confidence. But will Thiem’s lower-key style prove more consistently successful in the end?

For now, he can feel good about his campaign in Rome, where he came back to beat a fellow young gun, Jack Sock; stole a set from veteran Gilles Simon; and pushed Wawrinka the whole way. In those last two matches, Thiem looked like a ball-striker who is still in the process of learning to be a player. He can obviously smack his backhand when he comes over it, but he spent a fair amount of time trying out his slice. He made forays to the net, but lost points because he didn’t create the sharp volley angles that work best on clay. And, as the commentator above said, he pressed at times with his forehand. 

Yet if Thiem wanted encouragement, all he had to do was glance across the net at the man who was beating him. There, if he looked hard enough, he could have made out the now-famous tattoo on Wawrinka’s arm that entreated him to fail, “fail better,” and keep failing better until he finally, one day, stopping failing.

For a young gun today, it’s the only realistic slogan available, and the best fightin’ words around.

*****

Friday Preview

Roger Federer vs. Tomas Berdych

Berdych played the role of spoiler on Thursday; all of Rome would have loved to see the man he beat, Fabio Fognini, take on Federer in the quarters. But Berdych is the more logical opponent, and he’ll likely make it a better match. Federer leads their head-to-head 13-6, he won their only meeting of 2015 easily in Indian Wells, and his win on Thursday was much less taxing. But Berdych is on an upswing this year, and he’s taken out Federer in big events before. Winner: Berdych

Novak Djokovic vs. Kei Nishikori

Djokovic leads their series 3-2 and has won their last two meetings, but Nishikori can’t feel too badly about his chances. He knocked Nole out of the U.S. Open in 2014, and Djokovic has looked something close to human so far in Rome, where he has dropped a set in each of his first two rounds. But the match that sticks with me is Nishikori’s loss to Andy Murray last week in Madrid. Murray gave Kei few places to go with his ground strokes, and that seems like a recipe that Djokovic would have no trouble following. Winner: Djokovic

Rafael Nadal vs. Stan Wawrinka

These two are coming from similar places at the moment. Each has struggled, by their own standards, through the spring. Nadal hasn’t won a European clay-court event, and before this week, Wawrinka hadn’t won back-to-back matches since February. Did their solid straight-set wins on Thursday—Nadal’s over Isner, Wawrinka’s over Thiem—signal a turn for the better? We’ll know more after their (late) match on Friday. Rafa is 12-1 in their head-to-head, but Stan won their last match, the 2014 Australian Open final. Winner: Nadal

Petra Kvitova vs. Carla Suarez Navarro

An intriguing matchup. The Czech bomber and the Spanish spin machine look and play very differently, but they have a history of close contests. Kvitova leads their head-to-head 5-4, but Suarez Navarro has won their last three meetings, all in three sets, and all on hard courts. Kvitova has followed up her Madrid title nicely in Rome, but Suarez Navarro is steadier on clay. Winner: Suarez Navarro

Maria Sharapova vs. Victoria Azarenka

Each of these women has enjoyed the upper hand in this rivalry. In 2012, Azarenka won four of their five meetings; since than Sharapova has won three straight. Maria is also 3-0 on clay against Vika. Is it time for the tables to be turned back around? Sharapova has had the easier road so far in Rome, but Azarenka has a higher-quality win, over Wozniacki. Surface and immediate history, as well as Vika’s recent troubles closing out matches, favor Sharapova. But Azarenka is going to get herself turned around sooner or later. Winner: Azarenka​

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