ITW: Rejuvenated Thiem focused on regaining top form

 - Simon Cambers

Having come through tough moments after injury, the Austrian is motivated and intent on returning to his best.

Dominic Thiem / Monte-Carlo 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

In Monte-Carlo on Monday, Dominic Thiem won his first Masters 1000 match for almost two years. The Austrian looked back to his normal self, perhaps for the first time since he won his first and to date only Grand Slam title, at the US Open.

Getting to this point has been a long, arduous road. In August 2021, having lost form and motivation after his US Open victory, the then world No 5 suffered a serious right wrist injury while playing on grass in Mallorca. The injury kept him off the Tour for nine months and his comeback since has been anything but straightforward.

At one stage in the summer of 2022, Thiem dropped outside the world’s top 350. Though he showed signs of a return to form later in the year, a poor start to 2023 knocked his confidence again. Working with a sports psychologist for the first time in his career has helped and despite everything, the Austrian has never lost hope that he will get back toward the top again

“There were many, many very tough moments, but somehow, deep inside, there was the feeling that I still have something in me, or at least I want to give it a try,” Thiem said, in an interview for in Monte-Carlo, where he beat Frenchman Richard Gasquet in the opening round. "If I wouldn't have had this feeling deep inside me, probably I would have stopped.”

Dominic Thiem & Richard Gasquet / Monte-Carlo 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

At the age of 29, Thiem still has time on his side. The Austrian is six years younger than world No 1 Novak Djokovic and seven younger than Rafael Nadal, the man who denied him in his two Roland-Garros finals, in 2018 and 2019. In some ways, the injury could even be considered a blessing in disguise in that it came at a time when Thiem was struggling, feeling strangely empty after achieving a lifetime’s ambition in winning his first slam title.

“Now, recalling it, it was no coincidence that the injury (came when it did),” Thiem said. “Because after the US Open, I had troubles to motivate myself to practice, to travel. And I was doing way less (training) than ever before in my life. And then after the first-round defeat in Roland-Garros (in 2021, to Pablo Andujar), I was starting to work very hard again and maybe the body was somehow not used to it anymore, after so many years of full power and then some months where I didn't give it all. Then exactly the injury came. So probably that's no coincidence. It's tough to say, but when I had troubles to motivate and everything, I saw the injury also as a good chance. I was maybe also a little bit happy to have six, seven weeks off and then to give it another try.”

Dominic Thiem / 1er tour Roland-Garros 2021©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Even in the darkest moments – and there were plenty – he always believed in himself and never lost hope. “I almost did," he said. "On the surface (it looked like) I lost it, I guess. But deep inside me there was always this small fire, this small light. If I wouldn't have had it then, yeah, I would have stopped, probably.”

When Thiem returned to action in Marbella in 2022, there was an understandable fear factor, a concern that the wrist could go at any time. He lost his first seven matches back, including a defeat to Hugo Dellien in the first round at Roland-Garros, the second year in a row he’d gone out at the first stage. Overcoming the fear factor, he said, was far from easy.

That took pretty long,” he said. “I'm without any fear since half a year, I would say, where I can really go full in, all in, in all the situations, no matter the ball or even when it's a similar situation like when the injury happened. I have no problem anymore. But in the end it took probably all year.”

On the eve of Monte-Carlo, Thiem announced that his four-year partnership with coach, Nicolas Massu, had come to an end. As he begins a trial with Benjamin Ebrahimzadeh, Thiem said the split with Massu was a mutual decision. 

“What was very, very good, I felt that it was completely both-sided," he said. "When we had the talk after the match in Estoril (last week), Nico told me that if I wouldn't have looked for the talk, he would have done it the same night. So that was very positive. 

"I think no matter how great a relationship is, how great success is, it's pretty normal in sports to look for something new, to open up a new chapter. And that's what happened now. I'm feeling good. I'm feeling very good about the years with Nico and also I'm very happy about what's coming up.”

Dominic Thiem / Monte-Carlo 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Thiem is aiming to hit top form in time for his return to Roland-Garros, where he came so close to winning the title in 2018 and 2019, with only Nadal denying him slam glory. With Nadal and Novak Djokovic chasing a record-setting 23rd Grand Slam title and Carlos Alcaraz threatening to upstage them both.

Watching Alcaraz from the sidelines as he began his comeback, Thiem was as impressed as anyone and for a moment, there might have been a fear that the Tour had left him behind.

“Sometimes I was like, wow, it changed, things changed,” he said. “First when I saw on TV, the new generation and then also now when I came back, when I saw them live, I was like, OK, they all improved a lot. This is normal. I was out for 10 months and they were all working hard every day, they were all playing matches, which is normal. The goal is to get them again, to get to their level.”

Dominic Thiem & Rafael Nadal / Finale Roland-Garros 2019©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT