Tennis: Is Dominic Thiem finally nearing the top of the game?

After dethroning Rafael Nadal on his own court in Barcelona, Stephen Higgins wonders if we’ve seen the birth of a new King of Clay.


“He’s a good player. He’s a hard worker. So, I would love to see him [be] No. 1”

That’s a quote from Rafael Nadal after his semi-final loss to Dominic Thiem in Barcelona last week. It’s another example of the Spaniard’s generosity in defeat having just been toppled on quite literally his own court – the Pista Rafa Nadal.

We don’t yet know if the Austrian has the staying power to reach the summit of men’s tennis, but recent performances show us that he’s edging ever closer.

Thiem’s win over Nadal was record-breaking as he became only the second man to beat the Mallorcan four times on clay. The 25-year-old is only bettered in this regard by Novak Djokovic on seven.

Of more significance, though for both Thiem and the tour, is how he responded to the victory and where that could lead him down the stretch.

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We often see lower ranked players dispatch Federer, Nadal or Djokovic only to fall in the following round – victims of a gargantuan comedown. This was not the case with Thiem.

The world no.5 refocused last Sunday for the tricky challenge of Daniil Medvedev in the final. If the Russian is a new name to you, watch out for him in future draws. This versatile 23-year-old is just outside the top 10 after compiling the most match wins on tour this year with 25.

Medvedev recently knocked Djokovic out of Monte Carlo, so Thiem entered the final with an appreciation for the threat across the net.

Thiem wasn’t concerned and The Austrian dismissed his opponent in straight sets, bageling him in the second as Medvedev physically waned. It was title no.13 for Thiem, just a month removed from his greatest achievement to date.

If Thiem does hit the pinnacle of the sport, it will be built on performances like the ones he brought to Indian Wells in March. With Rod Laver watching on, the 25-year-old earned his first Masters 1000 title and outgunned Mr Federer to do so.

Federer was chasing a record sixth crown in California, but fell short due to Thiem’s power off the ground, stamina and mental resilience. Thiem’s triumph in three sets was all the more remarkable given his past struggles on the surface.

Thiem is a clay court maestro and his game is built for the dirt. An excellent topspin serve that throws opponents off court is accompanied by heavy groundstrokes, supreme athleticism, nimble footwork and lots of grit. When it comes to faster surfaces however, his long swings and tendency to favour power over accuracy have cost him in Melbourne, London and New York.

Roland Garros has been a fruitful destination for Thiem with two semi-finals and a final in his last three appearances. The remaining majors have been much stingier. To date, he’s only made one Grand Slam quarter-final outside of Paris (US Open 2018).

Thiem has shown more variety and better decision-making in recent months, this can only help him in his pursuit of a higher ranking and major success.

Having clinched the biggest title of his career in Indian Wells, Thiem is back ‘hitting bombs’, as Phil Mickelson might say, on his beloved dirt. Can he become more than a losing finalist at Madrid and Roland Garros?

Given Nadal’s unbelievable record on clay, the lefty is still the man to beat over the coming weeks.

However, the most dangerous player on tour at the moment hails from Lichtenwörth.

If Thiem can maintain a high level through the coming weeks, that should set him up for another tilt at the Coupe de Mousquetaires.

He absolutely can win it, just don’t expect the 11-time champion to be as generous from the baseline as he is in a press room.

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