2020 rewind: Thiem strikes balance for major evolution

 - Alex Sharp

It’s been a difficult year across the globe but the tennis world has helped provide some distraction with special moments and special players.

Dominic Thiem smiling during a practice at Roland-Garros 2020©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

“It had to be like this - my career was always like the match today - many ups and downs and I love the way it turned out.”

This is what Dominic Thiem tweeted after winning his maiden major at the US Open, more about that later…

Finally, after three strikes, the Austrian had completed the Grand Slam gauntlet his way.

If I speak about the tennis it has been an outstanding year. I have reached one of my big lifetime goals,” stated the 27year-old “Even though it's a tough year, it will always have a special place in my heart, 100%.”

First up, magic in Melbourne

The world No.3’s name scribed into the Grand Slam record books comes as no surprise. His explosive artillery has been causing gasps for several years as he embraces the undulating nature, the physical and mental demands at the very pinnacle of tennis.

Take the Australian Open at the start of 2020.

The quarter-finals is where he really clicked at Melbourne Park, edging three electric tie-breaks to snatch victory from Rafael Nadal.

Rafael Nadal congratulates Dominic Thiem during the Australian Open 2020.©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Two more tie-breaks were required to enable Thiem to overcome Alexander Zverev.

The Australian Open fans were really gaining value for money watching Thiem, with a pulsating five-set thriller against Novak Djokovic in the final.

“You have helped to raise the level, and I’m proud and happy I can compete in this time and period of tennis,” hailed Thiem as Djokovic lifted an unprecedented eighth Australian Open.

“I fell a bit short today, but I hope soon I can get my revenge.”

More frequently Thiem was persisting with brave shots and finding the answers up against the finest players on tour. ‘Revenge’ wasn’t far away.

Zverev Thiem US Open 2020©Pete Staples / USTA

New York, New champion

Over in New York, Thiem, as ever, blazed the practice court and was firing on all cylinders from the get go at the US Open.

2014 champion Marin Cilic was brushed aside, before in-form prodigies Felix Auger-Aliassime and Alex de Minaur were dismantled in straight sets.

The theme of crucial tie-breaks returned in the last four as Thiem commanded two to nullify the threat of Daniil Medvedev. Straight sets again. Was it all too easy?

The final, facing Zverev, was in complete contrast. Thiem shackled by nerves and doubts found himself in a two-sets deficit.

“I wanted this title so much, and of course there was also in my head that if I lose this one, it's 0-4 (major finals). It's always in your head. Is this chance ever coming back again?” Admitted the two-time Roland-Garros finalist (2018-19).

Somehow his instincts took over on slingshot groundstrokes, his superior court coverage and authoritative play reeled in the increasingly tentative German.

It all came down to the decider, Zverev had regrouped and marched 5-3 ahead to serve for it. Again, Thiem, back to the wall heroics incoming, managed to haul himself into a Championship tie-break.

6-6, two points each off taking a maiden major. Thiem, swinging off fumes, demonstrated his enhanced composure in the decisive duels for 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(6). “Many ups and downs,” as he said.

Thiem, significantly with all five tie-breaks at Flushing Meadows in his favour, is now a Grand Slam champion and the first player since Pancho Gonzales in 1949 to capture the US Open trophy from two sets down.

“I dedicated basically my whole life until this point to win one of the four majors. Now I did it. That's a great accomplishment for myself and my team.”

The achievement cannot be understated, as the first man since Cilic six years ago to win a first Grand Slam. It’s taken time, but the guard is changing.

Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic at the net after a practice at Roland-Garros 2020©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Homework pays off in London

The 27-year-old was understandably drained of mental reserves with just a fortnight to reboot for Roland-Garros and still made the quarter-finals.

Remember those tie-breaks in Melbourne and New York? Well, over to the ATP Finals and Thiem was crunching the clutch moments once again.

Defending champion Stefanos Tsitsipas succumbed to Thiem’s bombardment 7-6(5), 4-6, 6-3. This was followed by, with no exaggeration, one of the Austrian’s best ever performances.

“I think that today I played a little bit higher level than at the US Open and was maybe the best match for me since the restart of the tour,” said the world No.3, having secured a riveting 7-6(7), 7-6(4) passage past Rafael Nadal.

In the semi-finals at the O2 Arena, Thiem had four match points dissolved by the dogged world No.1 Novak Djokovic. The Serbian led 4-0 in the third set tie-break only for, you guessed it, Thiem to bounce back in a tie-break for his 300th career win 7-5, 6-7(10), 7-6(5).

“What he did from 0-4 in the third-set tie-breaker was just unreal,” insisted Djokovic, as Thiem returned to the ATP Finals silverware showdown.

Although Medvedev’s unorthodox wizardry was rewarded with the trophy, it was evident Thiem had done his homework, in particular observing 17-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic in decisive moments of matches.

“I took him as an example, because he has won so many important tie-breaks in his career. I have the feeling that when he's going into the tie-breaker, he just refuses to miss,” revealed the US Open champion. “That's what I tried to do as well, especially from the restart of the tour.”

From the Australian Open, to the US Open to the ATP Finals, Thiem had found the finely-tuned balance between full-throttle aggression and brave tactics combined with consistency in those career-defining sequences. Simply never to be counted out.

Dominic Thiem looking up at Roland-Garros 2020©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

‘Big Three’ hierarchy meet their match

Since the beginning of 2019, the world No.3 has a winning record against the legendary triumvirate; 3-2 versus Djokovic, 3-1 facing Nadal and 3-0 over Roger Federer.

Thiem has now taken that extra major step above his contemporaries, the ‘Big Three’ will be aware he has the knowhow, the belief and experience to draw upon.

“We proved that we can play with the legends, that we can also beat them, that we can also win the biggest tournaments,” highlighted the Austrian. “I think for tennis it's some exciting times are coming ahead.”