Thiem makes winning return with eyes set firmly on RG

 - Reem Abulleil

Austrian is confident he'll find his groove on the clay after two-month break

Dominic Thiem Madrid 2021©Antoine Couvercelle / FFT

For the past five years, Dominic Thiem has entered the clay-court season as one of the men to beat on the surface and arguably the main contender behind Rafael Nadal at all the big events on the red dirt.

This year, the Austrian world No.4 finds himself in a unique situation, searching for confidence and match play as he arrives to the section of the season where he typically shines the most.

The reigning US Open champion took nearly two months off after a sub-par start to the 2021 season, in which he admittedly struggled with motivation and was unable to find his best form.

His Madrid second round on Tuesday was his first outing since an opening-round exit in Dubai on March 16 and the two-time Roland-Garros runner-up came up big against American qualifier Marcos Giron, advancing with a 6-1, 6-3 win in a mere 58 minutes.

“If returning to the tour after seven weeks was a test, then it was a test passed with flying colours,” said commentator Colin Fleming, as Thiem celebrated his resounding victory on Estadio Manolo Santana.

“It suggests he’s going to be a force once again on this surface.”

Long break, no problem

Thiem is not accustomed to taking long breaks on tour, but if there ever was a surface that could help him regain his confidence, it would certainly be clay, and Madrid, of all places, is a great place for him to return to action.

The 27-year-old loves the conditions in the Spanish capital, where he was a finalist in 2017 and 2018, and where he has amassed an impressive 14-4 win-loss record over the years. Thiem enjoys the altitude in Madrid, and says his topspin is most effective in such conditions.

On Tuesday, he faced zero break points against Giron, dropped just eight points on serve, in total, and fired 20 winners against a mere 14 unforced errors, to set up a third-round clash with Spain-based Aussie Alex de Minaur.

“Actually I was surprised by how well it worked out,” Thiem acknowledged moments after his win.

“There was no anxiety, but definitely I was uncertain how things will be going.”

‘The big goal is Roland-Garros’

While he’s pleased with how smoothly his comeback match went, Thiem remains reserved when it comes to his expectations in Madrid. Giron was coming off of a three-and-a-half-hour battle from the day before, and was playing his fourth match in four days in Madrid, compared to a much fresher Thiem.

The Austrian is not looking too far ahead this week but still has high hopes for Roland-Garros, where he made the semi-finals or better for four consecutive years from 2016 to 2019.

“There were times in March where I was really feeling bad in general. Even then, I mean, I had in the back of my head the big goal of Roland-Garros. That's still where my expectations are very high. That's where I want to be at the top of my game again,” explained Thiem.

“Here in Madrid, honestly two weeks ago I was not sure if I'm playing here, so the expectations are still super low. A win like today is already a big success, because I get a chance to play another match in a top level, so that will help me again for the next weeks.

“Here the expectations are super low, and I'm going to hopefully rise them from tournament to tournament.”

Intensity is key

Thiem has historically been one of the players that choose to play a heavy schedule. He feels that with age and experience now, he no longer needs to compete every week, and that he can find his rhythm without having too many matches under his belt.

“For my game, I need 100 per cent intensity and 100 per cent energy. I'm not the guy who can serve through a match or who can play with a little bit intensity and is still winning. I'm just not that type of guy. I need 100 per cent in every aspect of my game,” he said.

“I was just not able to put that on court like in Doha, Dubai, or towards the end of the Australian Open, so that's why it was better to take a break. Better to come back when it's possible again to play with that 100 per cent in every aspect of my game.

“That's also the goal for the future, no, to really play only tournaments where I'm ready 100 per cent to compete.”

Feeling refreshed

Several players have admitted to have suffered mentally during the pandemic, whether it was the bubble fatigue or the extended periods away from home, or the anxiety that comes with the uncertainty surrounding the world these days.

For Thiem, the time away from the circuit helped him refresh his mind and body and he expects to take similar breaks from competition in the future.

“Tennis is with some few other sports, the only sports which are 11 months in a row, basically. That's really tough,” he says.

“Actually last year, the six-month break, it felt so nice. It's definitely something I consider, as well, in the future to better take a little bit more off."

“I think it's a good thing to do and especially when you get a little bit older. With 20, 21 of course you can play week after week. I also did that. But the older you get, the more experienced you get, I think it's good to do a break sometimes."

“For me, it definitely helped. But everybody is different, so I don't want to give any advices.”

Thiem takes a 3-0 head-to-head record lead into his Thursday meeting against the 24th-ranked De Minaur, who advanced to round three when his opponent Lloyd Harris retired from their match while down 2-6, 0-3 on Tuesday.

Dominic Thiem Madrid 2021©Antoine Couvercelle / FFT