This Thiem player could be something special
Dominic Thiem is one rising star of the men's game who looks equipped to fill a void as he gets ready for his first Grand Slam semi-final against Novak Djokovic.
Maybe it’s the absence of Roger Federer and the early exits of Rafa Nadal and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga here at Roland-Garros that have prompted a few more urgent questions about what the men’s tennis landscape will look like once some of its charismatic old brigade have departed the scene.
In this age of the 30-somethings, Novak Djokovic, approaching his 30th birthday, marches on in his pomp with Andy Murray doing his best to snap at his heels. But there’s a gap to the rest of the perennial pursuers. And the coming men - the likes of Alexander Zverev and Borna Coric - still seem to have a long journey to join the elite.
So, step forward Dominic Thiem, the man to fill a void. He can challenge - and he can challenge right now.
On Friday in his first Grand Slam semi, he takes on the leader of the pack Novak Djokovic, who will be contesting his 30th, so we can perhaps get a realistic gauge of where he really stands in the hierarchy. Yet next week, Thiem will be a top-10 player - No.7 at worst - and everything about him screams that he belongs there.
“Dominic is one of the leaders of the new generation. I'm sure he's very motivated to show himself and others that he deserves to be at the top and compete for biggest titles."
He is young, gifted and assured. Yes, he can get as emotional as any young player might but not in the same hot-headed manner of, say, Nick Kyrgios. On and off court, there’s an air of control there as he’s gone about his work in businesslike fashion but he’s his own man. You can’t say there’s no ‘i’ in this Thiem.
Yet, like the Australian Kyrgios, there is also perhaps a touch of star quality about the boyish 22-year-old Austrian who has already drawn plenty of attention on social media here during his march to the last four.
Of course, his rise had captured the attention of the rest of the elite, headed by Djokovic, who is not alone in sensing he is the real deal.
“Dominic is one of the leaders of the new generation. I'm sure he's very motivated to show himself and others that he deserves to be at the top and compete for biggest titles,” said Djokovic, who has played and beaten the youngster twice before.
“He's playing the best tennis of his life, no doubt about it. The results are showing that. He's been playing a lot this year, practically every week since February, March. He's been keeping fit, as well, which is quite amazing for somebody who hasn’t had that kind of scheduling before in his career.”
It’s true that there is a kind of indefatigable quality about Thiem. He’s won three tournaments and 41 matches already this year - Djoko has won 42 - and when one of those was over Nadal on clay (in Argentina in February), you know we are talking about a special talent operating on his favourite surface.
Roland-Garros holds special memories for Thiem. First, it was when watching TV six years ago as his compatriot Jurgen Melzer beat Djokovic in the quarter-finals. A year later, Thiem was here himself in the French Open boys’ final, in which he lost a tight match, 8-6 in the final set to Bjorn Fratangelo.
“That was the real special moment for me. It was the biggest success in my junior career and a really nice experience to be still in the tournament in the second week, even if it's a junior.”
But the semis of the pros? How’s he coping with that? “I don't think anything now. I'm going to do it like the whole tournament: just go out, give my best, and focus 100 per cent. Then I will see the outcome,” he shrugged.
Djokovic and the rest of us can see it already; this Thiem player is going to be a star.