Today definitely I found it, and I'm hoping to keep it as well, you know, on any level, on any surface. The way I played and the way I stepped on court today, that's just the only way it should be. Yeah, I'm trying and working hard to keep it like that on all the remaining year. —Dominic Thiem answering a reporter’s question about searching for his “mojo” following the struggling Austrian star’s agonizingly close loss (7-6 in the fifth) to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the first round at Wimbledon

“Mojo” is a slippery, amorphous, concept, but it’s a powerful one that can have a career-shaping influence in tennis. Perhaps no one knows that better than Thiem, the 29-year old four-time Grand Slam finalist and former US Open champion. Just months after cracking the Grand Slam code in Gotham in 2020, his mojo went missing. He’s been searching for it high and low ever since.

Ranked as high as No. 3 in March of 2020 and owner of 17 ATP Tour titles, the Austrian star hasn’t won a tournament since his breakthrough win at Flushing Meadows. His ranking fell as low as the mid-300s in the interim. This year, he lost nine of his first 10 matches, with no wins in the first three majors.

How could things go so wrong for a hall-of-fame grade player whose prowess on clay at one time was second-only to that of the man who throttled him in two finals at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal?

Thiem’s extended slump was brought on by a perfect storm that included burnout, injuries (including a severe, nagging right-wrist injury that essentially kept him off the tour from June of 2021 through most of the following March), and the disruptions brought on by the pandemic—including Thiem’s own bout with Covid.

“Tennis is like a moving escalator, you get off and it keeps moving,” ESPN analyst and elite coach Brad Gilbert told me. “Since he (Thiem) got off, tennis has, if anything, only gotten better, with guys like (Carlos) Alcaraz, (Jannik) Sinner and others now in the mix.”


Thiem's last title was his maiden major triumph at the 2020 US Open.

Thiem's last title was his maiden major triumph at the 2020 US Open.

Thiem’s loss of motivation following his long-deferred Grand Slam breakthrough in an era dominated by the Big Four was understandable. His work ethic was always nonpareil. His muscular game, marinated in perspiration, set a new standard for the marriage of point-by-point baseline grinding with a yeoman’s workload. Before 2020, Thiem routinely played more than 70 matches a year. Rarely has a reward appeared so just—or left someone so deserving of a long break.

“He was so dialed in, and so strong mentally,” Tennis Channel analyst Jimmy Arias said in an interview. “He went through the wars and found ways to win—and that’s the part Thiem hasn’t been able to find.”

Thiem’s prolonged struggles play into Gilbert’s belief in the “locker-room equity” accumulated by successful players - and how easily and quickly it can disappear. It is more than a theory in tennis—it’s a ruling principle. Luke Jensen, also a coach/ESPN analyst, chooses to call it the “fear factor” in the locker-room, and once that diminishes the roles of prey and predator are reversed.

“Guys may have grown up watching Dominic, and they respect his beautiful backhand,” Jensen told me. “But really, they’re thinking, ‘Hey I can beat this guy now.’”

Arias, who bolted to No. 5 age 20 in 1984 told me that during his own glory days, circa 1985, two games into many matches he would think, “There’s no way I lose to this guy.” Later, after a bout of mono and other setbacks, Arias would play two games and find himself thinking, “‘I hope I don’t screw this up.’ It was hard for me to regain my confidence.”

There are game-related issues in play as well. The new wave of players (Alcaraz, et al) play both bigger, and with more offense, than Thiem may be able to muster—never mind what he’s accustomed to. Thiem is often described as an east-west player who patrols deep behind the baseline. His penchant for defense and rallying leave him vulnerable to attack-minded opponents—of which there is an increasing number. “He may have lost a little touch of speed,” Gilbert said. “And the way he plays, so big and that far back, that could be a factor.”


Alcaraz and company have more diverse, well-rounded games than Thiem. Arias believes that with his one-handed backhand and returning position well behind the baseline, Thiem is “always behind” when a point starts. Tennis romantics drool over Thiem’s one-hander, but most experts consider it a vulnerability in today’s game.

“I wouldn’t go as far as saying the game has left him behind,” Jensen said. “But this is a game of adapt or die. You have to keep evolving, even at the top.”

Thiem still faces significant obstacles in his comeback, But there was a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel last week on his home soil at Kitzbuhel. Under significant pressure from his native partisans, Thiem still battled his way through four sometimes harrowing matches before running out of steam in a final-round loss to Sebastian Baez—on balance, a great result, and one that elevated his ranking to his current No. 84.

Nearly three years after realizing his lifelong dream to win a major, about to turn 30, Thiem has dealt with an “Is that all there is?” career crisis. He’s asked himself the tough questions. It seems that the congenial player still has that Labrador retriever’s obvious love for chasing a ball.

"On the surface it looked like I lost it, I guess,” Thiem told the Roland Garros website in May, referring to the hope that has sustained him through his tribulations. “But deep inside me there was always this small fire, this small light. If I wouldn't have had it then, yeah, I would have stopped, probably.”

It appears that Thiem is not ready to stop chasing that ball yet.