Thiem's forehand is the shot he must harness to win big titles

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Dominic Thiem is one of the few players that can give Rafael Nadal trouble on clay. (AP)

PARIS—In two prior matches versus Kei Nishikori, Dominic Thiem had failed to win a set. Fifty-six minutes into their fourth-round match early this Sunday afternoon, he’d won two by the rather staggering score of 6-2, 6-0.

The aesthetic appeal of Thiem’s game is his backhand, a one-handed shot executed with military-like precision, the Austrian’s hips, shoulders and ramrod-like posture aligned, coiled and keen to uncoil again and again. 

But as they say in golf, “drive for show, putt for dough.” To continue the military analogy, attention please, or, in tennis terms, please turn your hips in another direction: The Thiem forehand is the shot he must harness to win big titles. To be sure, his one-handed backhand—especially in this era of two-handed dominance—will continue to generate cult-like swooning (count me in). 

The big forehand is the terminal weapon Thiem needs, the sword that must stab with power, arc, depth and angle.

When I asked Thiem in his post-match press conference to respond to the dichotomy between his cherished backhand and lethal forehand, Thiem smiled and said, “Finally. No, I think my forehand is the shot I'm winning the matches with, definitely. Probably the backhand looks nicer. I don't know that other people see that. But the forehand is my favorite shot since all times, basically. I really love it. It's the shot where I giving all the opponents most of the troubles.”

So pummeled was Nishikori by the Thiem barrage that at 0-4, 15-30 in the second set, he served and volleyed. Punching a high forehand reasonably crosscourt and deep—one your teaching pro would applaud—all Nishikori could do was stand and witness, Thiem rolling a forehand crosscourt passing shot winner. It was the first of seven-straight points Thiem would win to close out the bagel, his dominance punctuated by three aces in the final service game. 

As Thiem said, “I didn’t let him breathe.”

Said Nishikori, “I just wasn’t there and maybe little bit nervous.”

Match point from Thiem's win over Nishikori at Roland Garros: 

Nishikori has fought through his share of injuries, most recently a significant wrist woe that took him off the ATP World Tour from mid-August of 2017 until this February. Fight is the operative word here. Nishikori is a supreme battler, able to wage combat with everything from his feet to his racquet to his mind. Opening the third set with a sharp down-the-line backhand winner, Nishikori swiftly held to 15. If the overall score implied he was hanging by his fingertips, Nishikori’s manner belied the situation.

Thiem spotted a window of possibility in the seventh game, with Nishikori serving at 3-all, 15-30. But here Nishikori responded brilliantly, on the first point nailing an inside-in forehand that just clipped the line for winner. At 30-all, an ace wide. As the third set wore on, the wide deuce-court serve was a vital way for Nishikori to blunt the staccato-like barrage of Thiem’s backhand. 

While some best-of-five set matches lurch towards the finish, this one blissfully revealed the beauty of duration. Thiem wanted to shorten time.  Nishikori knew he could lengthen it. But Thiem; well, Thiem has a way of building points than can take tennis to new levels. Serving at 4-5, 15-love, the Austrian elicited a deep-defensive lob that he smashed on the bounce, hard and deep into Nishikori’s corner. Nishikori rolled a forehand short to Thiem’s backhand. Thiem then unleashed a crosscourt backhand of such depth, pace and height that Nishikori could barely roll a backhand pass, at which point Thiem deftly dropped a backhand volley over the net winner.  Thiem wasn’t just beating Nishikori. He was making his game look obsolete, dated, yesterday’s news.   

Nishikori persevered. At 5-all, 30-30, another wide serve opened up the court for a fine forehand that elicited a Thiem error. Thiem served at 5-6, 30-love, a tiebreaker imminent. But then, three points of disaster for Thiem—a double-fault, long forehand, netted forehand. It wasn’t just that Nishikori had won the third set. He’d pilfered it. 

Said Thiem, “I let him breathe a little bit.”    

So now the entire texture of the match had changed, Thiem halted, Nishikori still standing. As often happens at this stage, the knowledge the two shared of each reality cast a charismatic, edgy spell over the fourth set. Those watching in Chatrier, moments ago lulled at the prospect of a Thiem straight-set procession, snapped to order. 

Once again, the seventh game—often tritely considered important, but in this match, genuinely so—propelled the plot. A backhand steered wide and a forehand lined into the net brought Nishikori to love-30 down on his serve.

Following a great retrieval of a Nishikori smash, Thiem netted a highly makeable short forehand. But at 15-30, Thiem grabbed hold of a rally and blistered a forehand up the line for a winner. At 30-40, second serve for Nishikori, Thiem moved to his left for the obvious Nishikori kicked delivery and lacerated an inside-out forehand for the winner. 

Even then, up the desired break in the fourth, Thiem was unable to shake Nishikori off his ankle. With Thiem serving at 4-3, Nishikori reached deuce but was unable to assert himself and went down 5-3. Nishikori held at love.  Curiously, at 5-4, 15-all, Thiem attempted to serve and volley and could only issue a half-volley, one more meager than many seen in USTA league play, making it easy for Nishikori to pass him crosscourt. But the next two points saw Thiem take swings as full-bodied as an Olympic shot-putter. The same happened on his first match point—a fantastic serve, pounded harshly to the backhand, but followed by an overstruck crosscourt forehand. 

“I felt like I was almost there to go fifth set,” said Nishikori.

But it’s not just Thiem’s shots that compel. It is his desire, the laser-sharp appetite of a man who competes as if he’s been starved for a week and wishes to tear every piece of flesh from the bone. There is nothing ambivalent, nothing withheld from this man’s ravenous ambition. So it was that after seeing that match point vanish, Thiem stepped even harder on the pedal. A wide serve opened up the court for an inside-out forehand winner, the last of 41 Thiem would strike today (to just 21 for Nishikori). But on the second match point, Nishikori capitulated with a long forehand. Even this superb competitor had run out of breath.   


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