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Two years after winning it all, Dominic Thiem's journey prepares him for US Open reunion
At the Winston-Salem Open Monday, the 231st-ranked Austrian played his first match in the U.S. since joining the Grand Slam winners' club in September 2020, saving two match points to topple J.J. Wolf after midnight.
Published Aug 23, 2022
The last time Dominic Thiem played a tournament in the United States, tennis hadn’t been back up and running for long amid the COVID-19-pandemic. Center stage at a fan-less US Open, the Austrian completed a comeback from two sets down to edge Alexander Zverev in a tension-filled final. His greatest athletic dream was realized, but Thiem’s journey over the two years that followed was anything but a coronation for a new Grand Slam king.
Out from June 2021 to March 2022 with a series of injuries—namely a hampered right wrist—the now 231st-ranked Thiem touched down in the U.S. last Tuesday eager to get back on hard courts, a surface he hasn’t competed on since March of last year. Illness delayed the former world No. 3 from starting up in Cincinnati, further underscoring the value of his wild card into Winston-Salem. Arriving early, Thiem found himself at the ATP 250 stop for the first time in a decade, having fallen in qualifying as an 18-year-old to former sparring partner Ernests Gulbis.
“I think it's pretty similar to New York, as it's not that far away. It's humid and can be pretty hot when the sun is out. So it's a perfect preparation,” he tells TENNIS.com. “The tournament is unique because we are like guests of Wake Forest University. I enjoy being here. There are not too many distractions. Perfect focus on the matches, on the training.”
On March 29, Thiem returned to action as the top seed of the Marbella Challenger where he lost in straight sets to Pedro Cachín. As he worked to rediscover himself on the court again, Thiem, winner of 17 tour-level titles, was forced to take the blows as they came—seven defeats, a single set won from 16 contested. But he never wavered with finding positives from each match, and his decision to invest in a strenuous training block in favor of the grass swing yielded encouraging signs that a change in fortune was in store.
At a trio of clay events, Thiem posted a 7-3 record. Two of the victories came in decisive tiebreakers after dropping the opening set. For him, it was all about sensing the level on his side of the court increase. Objective achieved. Going into the rest of 2022, striking the right tempo is now Thiem’s primary concern.
“In Rome and Paris, I was just not ready to face the top-level guys. My game was not there yet,” he reflects. “I played 10 good matches in Bastad, Gstaad and Kitzbühel, the goal now is to get the rhythm on hard courts as soon as possible, to play two great tournaments here in the U.S. And then a pretty intense calendar until the end of the year to hopefully reach my goal, which is getting back to the Top 100.”
Following his quarterfinal showing on home soil, Thiem opted for a new experience—a brief getaway to Amsterdam. Spending three days in “The Venice of the North”, the Wiener Neustadt native immersed himself in the local sights and culture by diving into the vegan food scene and sustainable shopping the capital city had to offer. Not long after returning from the rewarding trip, he came down sick. Once recovered, practice sessions were balanced with quality time alongside friends and family.
“I enjoyed it. I got batteries charged and ready again for this intense trip,” he says.
He needed all of his battery life Monday at the Winston-Salem Open in—to use that word of Thiem's—an intense first-rounder with J.J. Wolf that began a little after 7 p.m. Digging in to force a third set, rain put Thiem's rhythm to the test. When resumption came nearly two hours later, Thiem broke, only to see it erased by Wolf. A final-set tiebreaker was a fitting climax given the ebbs and flows of the evening.
A 4-1 scoreboard advantage turned to a 4-6 deficit for Thiem, as his backhand cost him three successive points. Instead of panicking, he flexed his major champion muscle. A deep crosscourt forehand return opened up the ad court on his backhand side. Off flew a scorching winner. More of the same followed when a terrific serve +1 was completed with a forehand crosscourt bullet. Switching sides, Thiem stepped on the gas to put Wolf on the defensive. Match point. Enticing the American to come forward, Thiem's final forehand had enough weight behind it to handcuff Wolf at the net.
After 3 hours and 9 minutes and two match points averted, Thiem had enough in the tank to jump for joy with a 6-7 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (6) victory in hand. The clock: 12:10 a.m.
“I'm sure many of you have to work tomorrow, so we really appreciate it,” said Thiem when addressing the fans who stuck out the weather to witness the dramatic conclusion.
Whenever he gets to New York, Thiem is due to make up one third of a unique men's trio. For he, Rafael Nadal and reigning titlist Daniil Medvedev all enter having won their past seven US Open matches. Though Thiem acknowledges the “very interesting” stat, he was pragmatic when discussing his connection to the Spaniard and Russian.
“There is a huge difference between Daniil, Rafa and me because maybe the two of them are the biggest favorites for the title. And I'm one of a hundred outsiders,” he asserts. “They played a great year, they played a Slam final against each other, played a full year. And me, I'm still on my way back. But still, I'm very proud to be in this very small circle of players.”
There is a huge difference between Daniil, Rafa and me because maybe the two of them are the biggest favorites for the title. And I'm one of a hundred outsiders. Dominic Thiem
In seven appearances, Thiem is 22-6 at Flushing Meadows. He’s been on the winning end of gritty five-setters and on the losing end of a pair of classics that went the distance. “The atmosphere in those matches was unbelievable,” he says upon reminiscing about his 2017 clash with Juan Martin del Potro and 2018 encounter with Nadal.
His birthday falls during the middle of the tournament and come September 3, Thiem will turn 29. There’s no denying that time is flying by, he admits, but if there’s an overarching takeaway the past two years have imparted, it’s to appreciate every mile marker on his journey, one that will bring him back to Queens at last.
“The great one is just coming up next year, the 30th,” Thiem laughs. “I try to enjoy my time as good as possible. I'm not young or not the next generation anymore.
“The last years, it always felt like I'm still up and coming, still somebody of the new generation. But that really changed now, I'm experienced, I'm 10 years on tour already. So those things changed and I hope I can make the best out of it.”