Lost and insecure: the new Dominic Thiem

Dominic Thiem
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SANTIAGO, Chile – After losing in the second round of the Argentina Open, Dominic Thiem ‘s training videos were all over social media. It was raining heavily in the Argentine capital, and the Austrian and his coach, Chilean Nicolás Massu, were on court wasting no time, with their minds already set on Rio de Janeiro.

He went through Argentina, Brazil and Chile without success. Neither before, in Australia. The former world number three is going through a bad moment: “I play very well in practice, but as soon as I enter the court for matches, many problems come to me. A lot it’s mentally.”

A very different situation to the one Thiem himself imagined during a conversation with CLAY in Saudi Arabia at the end of December: “Our goal from both of us is to play a great 2023 season.”

“I’ve seen this as a learning experience, as a good experience, because injuries happens to athletes and is not good to be mentally down or whatever. I think is important to take it as a life experience a sport experience. It’s how I try to approach it.”

Good intentions from Dominic Thiem, but without the results the Austrian had hoped for.

The 2020 US Open champion has not been the same since a wrist injury took him out of competitions in mid-2021. On the South American clay season, little was seen of the two-time Roland Garros finalist. He makes uncommon mistakes, especially with his forehand, his most lethal stroke. He misses balls at a comfortable height. He exhibits a dull body language, without spark, and with a brutal lack of confidence.

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Then he explains it in a press conference, with brutal honesty, after losing in the Chile Open’s first round by 6-2 , 7-6 (7-2) against the local Cristian Garin: “He played well, but I made it very easy for him. I didn’t give him many difficulties. I wasn’t aggressive enough, I was too slow, I played too short. If I play like that, a lot of players look good against me. I wasn’t really a tough challenge.”

Thiem knows that. With what he shows on court, he won’t win ATP-level matches with players who impose a relatively standard level.

Physically, he assures, his body feels fine. The body aches and pains are behind him, and the complications have moved to his head. Dominic Thiem is unable to find the focus during matches, and his backpack of problems look devoid of solutions that the Austrian has spent time searching for without success. “I’m working to find my way back on track. I’m going to Indian Wells to give myself a new chance.”

In California he was champion in 2019 and has not returned since. He’s never been able to defend that title: in 2020 the event was not held thanks to the pandemic, and in 2021 (October) and 2022 (March) Thiem was out due to injury. In 2023 he received a wild card, as well as in the three tournaments he played on clay in Latin America.

He came to these events looking for a confidence boost and more rhythm after an ungrateful debut in Australia (defeat in the opener against Andrey Rublev). Instead, he will fly over the continent from south to north full of insecurity and unresolved questions after his defeats against Peruvian Juan Pablo Varillas, Brazilian Thiago Monteiro and Garin. Although they showed a good level in those matches, on paper they would not have been a major obstacle for the old Thiem.

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The tortures of his wrist transformed the man who amazed everyone with his aggressive tennis and his presence in the final stages of major tournaments, to a lost athlete.

For some years he was perhaps the only threat to the Big Three and a constant candidate for big titles. Today, his ballast is in his head and he will have to chase away his ghosts if he wants to sneak back to the top, just at a time when Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are still the top candidates in the Grand Slams, but that added many more residents of that sphere in which Thiem was the main actor.

In Madrid, in one of his first tournaments back to competitions in 2022, Andy Murray left him a hopeful message at the net after defeating him in the first round: “I hope you feel better very soon, mate. It’s great to see you again. Keep going, it takes a long time, but you’ll be fine.”

Murray spoke with authority and with the experience of having lived a complicated comeback that has finally found a clear and successful path. A path that one of the great tennis figures of the last five years is obliged to follow if he wants to become Dominic Thiem again: long and impatient-proof.

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