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ATP Players of 2020, No. 2: Dominic Thiem
With a 17-2 record at the majors, his first Grand Slam title and wins over Djokovic and Nadal in London, the Austrian's 2020 was full of memorable experiences in a shortened, surreal season.
Published Dec 10, 2020
This week, we're highlighting our top five ATP players of the year. Last week, we revealed our Top 5 WTA list. Click here to read each selection.
Titles: US Open
Finals: Australian Open, Nitto ATP Finals
Win-loss record: 25-9 (17-2 in Grand Slams)
Key wins: Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal (x2), Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev (x2)
Three games won. Two return points claimed. You could say Dominic Thiem’s return to the ATP tour in August 2020 was the tennis equivalent of a New York minute.
“It's tough to understand right now, but, well, I will think about it,” he said after being blitzed by Filip Krajinovic, 6-2, 6-1, at the relocated Western & Southern Open. “I didn't find any rhythm. But, yeah, in general, I like to play here, I have to say, and I hope it's going to be better next week.”
That may have been the understatement of the year. For Thiem passed tests of patience, pressure, progress, and performance with straight As for the first time at a Grand Slam event, and one not initially predicted to serve as his breakthrough major. Yet with what he had produced over the past 18 months on hard courts, the Austrian’s end result at Flushing Meadows was a fitting conquest.
With five titles to his name in 2019, including his first ATP Masters 1000 at Indian Wells, and buoyed by his partnership with coach Nicolas Massu, Thiem was expected to challenge in the latter stages of the 2020 Australian Open. Preparation didn’t go to plan during the ATP Cup, where he went 1-2. At Melbourne Park, Thiem was slow to hit his stride, but he rallied from two sets to one down against Alex Bolt before fending off Taylor Fritz in four sets to reach the second week for the third time in four years. Then, he roared, louder than his streaky blonde highlights.
A clinical win over world No. 10 Gael Monfils set up a quarterfinal showdown with then-No. 1 Rafael Nadal. Thiem was 0-5 against the left-hander in best-of-five-set matches, with two of those defeats coming in consecutive Roland Garros finals. While he struggled to contain his nerves throughout their battle, Thiem’s firepower and bold assertiveness catapulted him to a 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (6) victory. He then shook off early tension once again to outclass Alexander Zverev in four close sets, winning another pair of crucial tiebreakers to get through.
His final hurdle, Novak Djokovic, was 7-0 in semifinals and finals Down Under. Having dropped the first set, Thiem put the No. 2 seed on notice by winning the next two. Djokovic would made his patented move, though, and once he regained the lead in the decider, the Serbian never looked back in raising his 17th major trophy.
Thiem was understandably empty afterwards, though left with this valuable takeaway.
“I'm very aware and sure now that I can play on a very high level for a full Grand Slam. Didn't have any drops,” he said. “That doesn't make me proud, but it makes me very confident for the next big tournaments which are coming up.”
Those big tournaments wouldn’t come for more than six months as COVID-19 forced everyone in the sport to adjust to an unknown future. Thiem’s title defense at Indian Wells never happened. Miami and Monte Carlo also canceled operations. Wimbledon became the most notable event to remove itself from the 2020 calendar, its first absence in 75 years. Roland Garros assertively postponed its tournament until late September, later followed by Rome.
While players waited to see if USTA would successfully move forward with staging the US Open, Thiem did his own thing. From hosting his own event, Thiem's 7 in Kitzbuhel, to hitting up Berlin for unique set of playing opportunities on grass and inside an airport hangar, the workhorse stayed in shape by competing whenever—and wherever—he could. (including the ill-fated Adria Tour)
Thiem’s exhibition training appeared to be negligible when he initially arrived in New York, evidenced by his blowout loss to Krajinovic. But with reigning US Open titlist Nadal opting out of traveling to the states, and Roger Federer sidelined with injury, many wondered if someone other than Djokovic would capitalize on the opportunity to win a unique major played behind closed doors at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Having a week to review what went wrong, Thiem would answer that question. Meeting the level expected of his No. 2 seed, Thiem confidently advanced to the semifinals by relinquishing a single set in the third round—to the last first-time major winner on the men’s side, 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic. Next Gen ATP standouts Felix Auger-Aliassime and Alex de Minaur were sent back to their drawing boards with emphatic defeats, later joined by Daniil Medvedev after Thiem hit through the 2019 finalist, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2.
Zverev emerged to reach his first major final from the top half of the draw, as Djokovic was defaulted from his fourth-round contest with Pablo Carreno Busta when he accidentally struck a lineswoman with a ball. Thiem was thought to be a sizeable favorite given his slew of experiences in final weekends at the Slams, but found himself down two sets and a break to the German thanks to a slew of sloppy errors. Was he about to join Andy Murray in losing his first four Slam finals?
While no one in the Open Era had ever rallied from two sets down to win the US Open, Zverev wasn’t highly-regarded for his ability to close. From an insurmountable deficit to getting into a fifth set, Thiem kept competing and never collapsed—completely. Zverev had the match on his racquet first at 5-3. Three games later, Thiem had his chance to serve it out. With neither shutting the door, a decisive tiebreak would provide the fitting finish to this deep drama, one where Thiem at last understood the feeling of winning the final point in a Grand Slam fortnight.
“I put a lot of work in. I mean, I dedicated basically my whole life until this point to win one of the four majors,” said Thiem, who became the first Austrian since Thomas Muster to take home a major. “Now I did it. That's also for myself a great accomplishment.”
Forgoing Rome, Thiem advanced to the quarterfinals of Roland Garros after squeaking past inspired wild card Hugo Gaston and an onslaught of deft drop shots. Good friend Diego Schwartzman prevailed in five to end Thiem’s Paris campaign in early October, and at the end of the month, his hopes of retaining the title at his home event in Vienna were dashed by a red-hot Andrey Rublev in the last eight.
Pulling out of the Rolex Paris Masters to nurse a blister issue on his right foot, Thiem left it all on the court in his 2020 swan song. At the season-ending Nitto ATP Finals, the 27-year-old matched his 2019 performance by making his way back to the title match. In the group stage, he exacted revenge on defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas and topped Nadal in straight sets to clinch his place in the semifinals. There, Thiem was given another shot at redemption against Djokovic.
What looked to be a valiant victory nearly turned into a demoralizing defeat. Thiem watched as four match points slipped away in a second-set tiebreaker. The two continued to trade blows, holding serve without any break point opportunities to reach a winner-take-all tiebreak. With Djokovic opening a 4-0 lead, what happened next was a sequence the five-time winner could only describe as “unreal” as Thiem’s explosive offense netted seven of the final eight points to end the classic clash, 7-5, 6-7 (10), 7-6 (5).
In his final press conference answer at the US Open, Thiem had admitted, “The problem was my nerves. I was super, super tight. I was tighter than in a long time. Didn't even know how that feels anymore. Didn't even know how to get rid of that. But somehow I did it in the third set.”
Ten weeks later, Thiem divulged those same butterflies crept up on him when holding match point on Djokovic, despite getting the major monkey off his back.
“What I said about US Open title that maybe makes me a little bit more calm in tough situations, it was a mistake for myself to think that way,” he reflected.
When all is said and done, Thiem ultimately showed on various stages this year to those watching, to those he played—and most importantly, to himself—that his heightened composure and dynamic ball-striking were influential enough to prevent nerves from creating a domino effect. Goodbye, Domi-no. Hello, Domi-yes.