They made 2019 (III): Thiem’s California dream

EPISODE 3/10. In 10 days, 10 players and 10 stories, here are the tales of a fascinating year.

Dominic Thiem smiling right after match point in the 2019 Indian Wells final©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
 - Reem Abulleil

EPISODE 3/10. From low on confidence to the Indian Wells champion: here's how Dominic Thiem lived his California Dream.

When Dominic Thiem arrived at Indian Wells for a 12-day training block ahead of the start of the Masters 1000 event there in March, the Austrian was in search of form and confidence.

He had won just three matches in the opening two months of the 2019 season, and was admittedly still fatigued from a lengthy 2018 campaign that affected his preparations for the new year.

After a disappointing January that saw him retire from the Australian Open second round against Alexei Popyrin citing illness, Thiem hired two-time Olympic gold medallist Nicolas Massu as his coach, and later announced he had ended his 15-year coaching partnership with Gunter Bresnik.

©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Low on confidence

With very low expectations and a new mentor in his corner, Thiem surprised even himself as he blasted through the draw, taking down Jordan Thompson, Gilles Simon, Ivo Karlovic and Milos Raonic to make his first hard-court Masters 1000 final.

“I arrived not in a good shape, neither physically nor tennis-wise, nothing. I didn't know what's gonna happen in this tournament. But I'm proud of myself because I gave myself the chance,” Thiem told reporters at Indian Wells on the eve of his final clash with five-time champion Roger Federer.

“I just said to myself, I'm going to start my season here. I'm going to do a great preparation here. And of course it's luck and it's amazing that it pays off immediately.”

©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Finding his hard-court groove

Thiem was 0-2 in his previous Masters 1000 finals, both of which had come on his beloved clay, in Madrid.

But on March 17, 2019, against 20-time Grand Slam winner Federer, Thiem made sure he was third time lucky as he fought from a set down to defeat the Swiss legend 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 and lift a maiden Masters 1000 trophy.

Thiem entered the final with a 2-2 head-to-head record versus Federer, but neither one of those two successes against the veteran had come on hard court.

Clay, as Thiem describes it, is his “home”, but the slow and bouncy hard courts of Indian Wells are also perfectly suited for the two-time Roland-Garros runner-up’s game, and this year, he finally proved it.

After dropping the opening set to Federer, Thiem saved a couple of break points in the third game of the second to avoid falling behind early on. That unlocked something in the Austrian, then 25 years old and ranked No.8 in the world.

When he’s on, Thiem goes for broke on every single shot, maintaining a kind of consistent intensity that can take down anyone.

Against Federer in the final, he went up a break in the second set and never let up, leveling the match to a force a decider and breaking late in the final set en route to a huge upset. When a Federer forehand landed in the net on match point, Thiem flung himself to the ground, his back perfectly aligned with the ‘INDIAN WELLS’ text printed on the court behind the baseline, covering his face in disbelief.

“It feels just unreal what happened in these 10 days during the tournament. I came from a really bad form in all categories, and now I'm the champion of Indian Wells,” said an elated Thiem.

“It feels not real at all. It was a great week, and I think also a very good final today. Just amazing that I got here, my first really big title.”

©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Focus mode

Thiem saved 9/11 break points against Federer and won more than half of his return points on his opponent’s second serve.

He became the first Austrian to clinch the Indian Wells crown and denied Federer a sixth title in the California desert.

The previous fall, Thiem strengthened his hard-court credentials when he reached the quarter-finals of the US Open, where he suffered a narrow defeat in the fifth-set tiebreak to Rafael Nadal. It was his first non-clay Grand Slam quarter-final and it gave him confidence in his abilities on faster surfaces.

But making a quarter-final at a major is one thing, and scooping a Masters title is another, and Indian Wells was exactly what Thiem needed to turn his 2019 season around.

“Mentally, it was a really good week, because I stayed focused in all the matches. I was not crying around. I was staying positive most of the time, and that's what I have to keep up now,” he said after his victory.

©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

The Massu effect

It was also an early sign of what he and Massu could accomplish together, and the duo confess that they couldn’t have dreamt of a better start to their partnership.

“It's amazing to have him in the box, because he's so motivated. He puts the motivation on myself on the court. That's great. Beside the matches, we had a great intensity in the practices before Indian Wells. Because in, yeah, like, 12, 13 days, he got me from physically not in good shape, tennis-wise not in good shape, he got me, well, to an Indian Wells champion. That's an amazing achievement also by him,” Thiem said of his Chilean coach.

Indian Wells laid the groundwork for more Thiem heroics in 2019. During the clay season, he ousted Nadal in the semis in Barcelona on his way to the title, and posted a second victory of the year over Federer – this time in Madrid en route to the last-four.

At Roland-Garros, Thiem toppled Gael Monfils, Karen Khachanov and Novak Djokovic back-to-back to reach a second consecutive final in Paris, where he fell to Nadal in four sets.

©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Massive season finish

He added three more titles to his tally, on Austrian clay in Kitzbuhel, on outdoor hard courts in Beijing, and indoor hard courts in Vienna, before enjoying a tremendous end to the season at the ATP Finals in London, where he overcame Djokovic and Federer in his first two round-robin matches at the O2.

“He deserved to win. He just played very courageous tennis and just smacking the ball. He went for broke,” Djokovic said of Thiem after the match in London. “I mean, the entire match he played same way he played the last point. I have to put my hat down and congratulate him, because he just played a great match.

“I don't think I have experienced too many matches like this where my opponent just goes for every single shot. He was unbelievable, and in some stages it was just incredible that he was just literally smacking the ball as hard as he can and he was going in.”

In the final, Thiem suffered a tight third-set tiebreak defeat to Stefanos Tsitsipas to conclude 2019 with five titles won from seven finals reached, a 15-3 record in deciding sets, a 9-5 mark against top-10 opposition, and a year-end No.4 ranking.

©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Big-Three slayer

One of just two players to defeat each member of the ‘Big Three’ in 2019, Thiem tries to explain what it’s like taking on the sport’s legendary trio. 

“It's tough against Roger, Rafa, Novak because you have to beat not only the player but somehow also the great aura they all have, all these titles they have won. So you have to play somehow double good to beat them,” he said in Indian Wells.

He’s managed that incredibly well this year, and it was the final against Federer in Indian Wells that proved to be the catalyst for Thiem in 2019. The 26-year-old is now primed to be a major threat at the Grand Slams – not just in Paris – in 2020.