Until this spring, it was easy to take Dominic Thiem for granted.
Over the past decade, he had always there, week in and week out, playing as many tournaments as anyone in the Top 20 and rarely giving himself any time off. He wasn’t as popular as the Big 3, but he also didn’t annoy their fanbases by beating them very often at the majors. Other than a stray callous comment here, and a broken Covid protocol there, Thiem didn’t make waves, like, say, Nick Kyrgios.
Even when Thiem finally broke through and won the US Open last fall, he retreated from the spotlight as rapidly as he had entered it. Instead of playing with newfound confidence, the way many of us expected he would, the Austrian was upset in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, and the fourth round at the Australian Open. His coach, Nicolas Massu, tested positive for COVID and had to leave his side. By March, Thiem himself was sidelined with a knee injury, and there was talk that this former iron man had lost his motivation. Coming into Madrid, he was just 5-4 on the season. With all eyes on Stefanos Tsitsipas so far this spring, Thiem’s days as Rafael Nadal’s heir apparent on clay seemed to be fading.
Let’s hope that isn’t the case. Men’s tennis needs as many future stars as it can get, and Thiem has patiently made himself into of them over the last five years. On the one hand, at 27, he might seem sneaky old; shouldn’t an heir apparent, or the leader of the “next generation,” be a little younger than that? On the other hand, in this era of the 30-something Slam champion, Thiem might be entering his prime now. He’s the only ATP player under 30 with a major title under his belt. According to Thiem, the prospect of winning another one, and his first in Paris, is enough to keep him going right now.
“There were times in March where I was really feeling bad in general,” Thiem admitted on Tuesday. “Even then, I mean, I had in the back of my head the big goal of Roland Garros. That’s still where my expectations are, are very high about. That’s where I want to be at the top of my game again. Here in Madrid, honestly two weeks ago I was not sure if I’m playing here, so the expectations are still super low.”
Thiem also admitted that the enforced idleness during the lockdowns in 2021 had opened his eyes to the benefits of getting away from the grind.
“The six-months break, it felt so nice,” he said. “It’s definitely something I’ll consider, as well, in the future to better take a little bit more off.”
With all of that talk of vacation, it was good to hear that Thiem is ready to get down to business again.
“Now it’s also time to be back,” he said. “I think Madrid is a great place for me. I have only good memories to that tournament.
“I was preparing in Austria, doing lot of physical practice, lot of tennis practice. I think that I’m on a good level.”
Massu echoed those upbeat thoughts. He said that Thiem had been “training unbelievably,” and that their reunion after Massu’s recovery had breathed new life into Thiem.
A two-time finalist in Madrid, Thiem couldn’t have asked for a smoother return. On Tuesday evening, he beat 91st-ranked Marcos Giron of the U.S., 6-1, 6-3 in 57 minutes. Thiem was superior in every aspect of the game, and Giron struggled to handle his high-bouncing topspin, both on his serve and his ground strokes.
“There were some things which I think made it a little bit easier, the match, after such a long time, especially the conditions in Madrid, which are great for me,” Thiem said. “Then amazing memories on this court where I already played probably some of the best matches of my career. So I think that’s why things worked out quite well tonight.”
Of course, one night does not a comeback make. He’ll likely face grittier competition in his next match, against Alex de Minaur. Thiem, and the rest of us, shouldn’t take anything he does for granted anymore.