Dominic Thiem's return to clay could be better than ever

Dominic Thiem's return to clay could be better than ever

The Austrian will be entering this stretch on the heels of his biggest career title.

Entering the 2019 season, Dominic Thiem’s best result at the Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells was a quarterfinal finish in 2017. He surpassed that mark in dramatic fashion this year, claiming the biggest title of his career with a come-from-behind triumph over five-time champion Roger Federer.

Even though the Austrian was unable to keep his momentum going in Miami, where he dropped his opening match to unseeded Hubert Hurkacz, the Indian Wells victory erased any doubt about where he stood, form-wise, given his slow start to the year. It also bodes well for the weeks ahead—starting with Monte Carlo and leading up to the French Open—when he’s at his strongest.

Thiem’s Masters triumph was the third hard-court title of his career; he also has a title on grass. But his ascent up the rankings for the past several seasons, into a Top 10 mainstay, has been built predominantly on his clay-court prowess. Since 2014, he’s reached 14 finals on the surface, winning eight of those championship matches. Prior to Indian Wells, his most significant title was the 2017 Rio Open, a 500-level event. After his time in the U.S. on the hard courts that year, he reached the final in Barcelona—another 500 tournament—then the title bout in Madrid, his first Masters 1000 final. Both times, Rafael Nadal stopped his charge, but the 11-time French Open champion lost to Thiem in Rome soon after for the second time, having dropped a third-set tiebreak to him the year before in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Last spring was perhaps the best stretch of Thiem’s career. In Madrid, he turned the tables on Nadal, stopping him in the quarterfinals soon after getting blitzed by the Spaniard in the last eight in Monte Carlo. Thiem fell in the Madrid final to Alexander Zverev, but would go on to win in Lyon, France, right before the start of Roland Garros. He rode that momentum through to the final in Paris, surpassing his last-four finishes the prior two years. Nadal wouldn’t be denied, though, as he romped through the match in straight sets.

Thiem’s 2018 ended on another solid note as he once again made his way to the elite eight at the ATP Finals in London, but this year got off to an unexpectedly slow start as he suffered through some health issues that forced him to the sidelines. When he returned during the “Golden Swing” of clay-court tournaments through Latin America, he left without a title for the first time since 2015.

That didn't turn out to be an indicator of his play to come at Indian Wells, however. Thiem went through his first three matches without the loss of a set, received a walkover against Gael Monfils, then posted consecutive three-set wins against Milos Raonic and Federer.

Now, Thiem is preparing for the first Masters event of the year on clay in Monte Carlo, where he’s the fourth seed. Granted a bye in the first round, he would face the winner of a match between Martin Klizan and a qualifier in the second round, and could potentially see the 16th seed, David Goffin, in the third round. Thiem, whose best finish in Monte Carlo is a quarterfinal appearance last year, is in the top half of the draw with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, whom he beat in the fourth round at the 2018 tournament.

This year, they’re drawn to face each other in the semifinals. Conversely, Djokovic isn’t entering Monte Carlo with confidence built during the first Masters events of 2019, having lost early in both.

Thiem, who’s also coming into the event fully on board with new coach Nicolas Massu and a more assured place than in years past, will look to maintain his place among the best on clay. Given his recent hard-court performance, he could be well positioned to surpass his already-impressive past results on the dirt.