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Rising star: Dominic Thiem - Going Wild

By Julien Pichené   on   Sunday 29 May 2016
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Because they are young and brimming with talent, and because their styles of play, careers or simply their natural affinities point to success on clay in general and at Roland-Garros in particular, Rolandgarros.com has picked out 20 rising stars – 10 young women and 10 young men – to keep a close eye on throughout the year. Dominic Thiem (pronounced “team”) is one of today’s rising stars on clay. The Austrian player, who reached the finals in the juniors’ tournament here in 2011, is the youngest player in the Top 15.

Why Thiem?

Excluding doubles, Thiem played a total of 46 matches before the French Open, setting a top 50 record. Like a bull in a china shop, the Austrian is smashing his way closer and closer to the Top 10 after showing he can win at ATP 500 level as he did at Acapulco in spring.

Given Grigor Dimitrov’s lacklustre performance in recent months, fans of old-school tennis have flocked to admire his one-handed backhand. And the future looks bright: Thiem is the leader of a new generation of impetuous and ambitious players – which includes Kyrgios, Coric and Zverev – who are regularly making the headlines. This new group could and should dethrone the “big four”, something the previous generation - players like Nishikori, Raonic and Dimitrov, who were born between 1989 and 1992 - has had limited success in doing.

While Thiem prefers playing his forehand, it was this “other” shot that wowed the public and impressed Rafael Nadal in their Roland-Garros stoush of 2014. “If Dominic keeps making progress and training hard, he could be a top player,” Nadal observed.

Of all those in the younger generation, Thiem appears to be the most likely to succeed on clay, given his power, patience and construction of the game. And his block backhand return is one of the wonders of tennis today. He is also very strong mentally, dispensing with the services of psychologists. This physical and mental strength is reflected in the statistics: he has played 17 tie-breaks in 2016, and won 16 of them.

He isn’t called the “Dominator” for nothing – Thiem may list Stefan Koubek and Jurgen Melzer as his idols, but he is following in the footsteps of another German-speaking tennis superhero, Thomas Muster. To match the latter, he would need to win Roland-Garros, become world No.1 and take another 38 ATP titles.

R. Nadal v. D. Thiem R2 Highlights

Nadal - Thiem, RG14, highlights.

Background

Gunter Bresnik, Thiem’s coach, long considered the Austrian too nice. “Dominic behaves too well,” he said early on in the player’s career. "But in tennis, the only way to succeed is to be an animal." But let's not forget that his best friend on tour is none other than Latvian bad boy Ernests Gulbis, also coached by Bresnik and who has one of the strongest personalities on the circuit.

While not a troublemaker, Thiem isn’t a goody two-shoes either. He shocked the tennis world in 2013 by asking for more money to play in a Davis Cup match in the Netherlands. He may have taken a while to come into his own, but the “animal” is beginning to emerge: the man and his game have arrived, at once diligent, tenacious, bold and cunning. Last summer, Thiem dyed his hair blonde, as if to show that his metamorphosis was complete.

In all seriousness, the Austrian has made some significant changes over the last two seasons. He has switched racquets and opted for a denser stringing pattern to achieve better lift control, not to mention occasional consultations with a second coach, Swede Joachim Nystrom, an expert on clay and former top 10 player.

Portrait: Dominic Thiem

Career to date

Like Muster in 1985, Dominic Thiem stumbled at the final hurdle of the boys' tournament at Roland-Garros in 2011. Playing against American Bjorn Fratagnelo, Thiem lost out just two points from victory. He got over it quickly, though: at the beginning of the new season, at home in Vienna, he notched up his first victory on the main circuit, which was also the last defeat of Muster, who unexpectedly came out of retirement at almost 44 years of age.

Two months later, Thiem added his name to the list of Orange Bowl winners (in the under-18 category), which also features names such as Borg, McEnroe, Lendl, Courier, Medvedev, Costa, Federer and Roddick.

He initially struggled when he entered the world of professional tennis the following year, akin to his struggle with his one-handed backhand. "To be honest, I thought it was going to be easier turning pro. Once, I lost five first-round matches in a row on the ITF Futures circuit. That's when I realised I was going to have to work much harder."

He advanced steadily - No.309 in 2012; No.139 in 2013; No.39 in 2014; No.20 in 2015 - yet had no major win until he defeated Wawrinka in Madrid in 2014. He was 21 when he entered the top 20 and lifted his first trophy in Nice, 2015. Today, Thiem has six titles in total, having won at Umag and Gstaad in 2015 and Buenos Aires, Acapulco and Nice this year. In February, he also scored a prestigious career win against Rafael Nadal - 7-6 in the third set in Argentina, after saving a match point.

He is currently 6th in this year's ATP Race standing, far ahead of Nadal and Roger Federer. Is it finally time for the torch to be passed on?

Read more: Our clay Q&A for 2016

Dominic Thiem

RG11 junior finalist, against Björn Fratangelo.

Why can we expect from him this year?

It would seem highly likely that he will enter the top 10; it is merely a question of weeks. Now he just needs to settle into his new position as a Grand Slam threat; thus far he has reached the fourth round just once before this year's French Open - at the US Open in 2014 - and he's reached the same stage again in Paris. Facing Marcel Granollers in the last 16, his first quarter-final seems within his reach. And even against David Goffin or Ernests Gulbis, he would be in with more than a fighting chance.

Follow him on Twitter: @ThiemDomi


Read more: Garbine Muguruza - already among the big guns

Highlights: Thiem v Goffin QF

Thiem - Goffin, RG16 quarterfinals, highlights

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