Will Dominic Thiem finally be ready to leave the shadows of the Big 3?

Will Dominic Thiem finally be ready to leave the shadows of the Big 3?

The Austrian has played a lot during the lockdowns, and done some talking, too.

While the rest of us have been locked in our living rooms, Dominic Thiem has been doing what he always does: Traveling from city to city, playing as many tennis matches as possible. On Wednesday, in his 27th match of the break so far, Thiem beat Matteo Berrettini to win an event on grass in Berlin. This weekend, the Austrian will be at it again at another event, inside the city’s Tempelhof Airport.

None of this should come as a surprise. Thiem is the iron man and the Energizer Bunny of the ATP’s Top 10, a guy who leaves the tour grind behind only grudgingly. It’s also not a surprise that Thiem, the world No. 3, has played some good tennis along the way. This week he beat Berrettini and Jannik Sinner, and before the Adria Tour suffered its COVID collapse, I thought the story of that event was how well Thiem played in winning the opening leg in Belgrade. Even in Novak Djokovic’s hometown, it was Thiem who played with the self-assured strut of a favorite.

What comes as more of a surprise is the fact that, along with all of that playing, Thiem has done a fair amount of talking during the break, too.

First, in April, the generally mild-mannered 26-year-old startled a lot of us when he balked at the idea of contributing $30,000 to a relief fund for lower-ranked players.

“Many of them are quite unprofessional,” Thiem said of the ATP’s rank-and-file, pulling no punches. “I don’t see why I should give them money.”

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Then, earlier this month, Thiem got into a long-distance back-and-forth with Nick Kyrgios over the Adria Tour, its aftermath, and the wisdom of holding tennis events during a pandemic. Thiem defended his tour-mate Alexander Zverev, after Kyrgios criticized the German for breaking quarantine and going to a party.

“Kyrgios has built a lot of nonsense himself,” Thiem said.

Kyrgios shot back with a surprising jab of his own: “None of you have the intellectual level to even understand where I’m coming from. I’m trying to hold them accountable. People losing lives[,] loved ones and friends, and Thiem standing up for the mistake.”

To which Thiem responded with my favorite line of the contretemps: “Certain opinions from Australia aren’t necessary.” (Sounds like the title of a new Netflix comedy series to me.)

Arguably, Thiem was on the wrong side in both of these discussions. Surely he’s made enough money in his career to be able to afford a one-time 30K payment to help out his fellow players. And Kyrgios is right that breaking a coronavirus quarantine is not something to defend. At the same time, Thiem didn’t try to deflect all the blame for the Adria Tour debacle.

“We have to learn from the mistakes and be careful nowadays with this pandemic we’re facing,” Thiem said. “…The fact we were criticized is not unfair because we all made mistakes. That’s clear. But it was way too much at the end because the tournament was well-intended.”

What’s interesting is that Thiem is speaking out so brazenly in the first place. After spending the better part of a decade living in the long shadows of the Big 3, does he feel ready to carve his own path? To state his own opinions flatly, whether they’re popular or not? To make his alpha move?

From a playing perspective, that move would be timely and perhaps overdue. Over the last three seasons, Thiem has made steady progress toward a Grand Slam title. In 2018, he reached the Roland Garros final and lost to Rafael Nadal in straight sets. In 2019, he reached the final again and lost to Nadal in four sets. And in January, at the Australian Open, Thiem beat Rafa in the quarterfinals before losing to Djokovic in five sets in the final.

The only place left for Thiem to go at this point is into the winner’s circle at a major. With Roger Federer out for the season, Nadal possibly skipping the summer American swing, and Djokovic recovering from the coronavirus, Thiem might be considered the favorite to win the US Open. He certainly doesn’t have any qualms about coming to New York.

“It will be safe for everyone,” he confidently stated this week.

As a tour leader and spokesman, Thiem could probably use some polish. But as a player, I like that he has a little extra swagger in his step. If anyone is going to be prepared to come out of this break and leap into the pressure cooker of a condensed schedule, it’s probably going to be the guy who never really left the court in the first place.

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