As the men’s tennis calendar flipped over to March and the first hiatus of the ATP season prompted by the Davis Cup, one player was head and shoulders above the rest in terms of match wins in 2016.
Novak Djokovic began the year by claiming the 60th title of his career in Doha before successfully defending his Australian Open crown. But even the world number one couldn’t boast anything like the 18 wins chalked up so far this season by a 22-year-old from the Austrian town of Wiener-Neustadt, whose performances in February saw him rise to a career-high of 14 in the ATP Rankings.
During an extremely lucrative and successful three weeks, Dominic Thiem beat the number one seed and defending champion Rafael Nadal on the clay of Buenos Aires en route to securing a fourth ATP World Tour title. A week later he reached the semi-finals in Rio de Janeiro and he rounded off February by winning his first hardcourt title and his first at the 500 level, overcoming Bernard Tomic in three sets in the final of the Mexican Open in Acapulco.
“It was unbelievable,” said Thiem. “These three weeks have been amazing…just perfect.”
Djokovic may be approaching invincibility but on the evidence of Thiem’s achievements this year, the coronation of a first male Grand Slam champion born in the 1990s may not be too far away. And given five of Thiem’s six tour-level finals have been played on clay, the assumption is he’ll end the wait at the French Open.
Success in 2017 may be a more realistic prospect but 2016 is a distinct possibility and there’s a lot to be said for striking while the iron is hot.
Even more can be said of Thiem’s pedigree. Cynics would argue that getting the better of Nadal these days, even on clay, isn’t held in the same regard it was as recently as 2014, when the Spaniard won his ninth French Open title. But as well as seeing off Nadal over the course of a three-hour, three-set match on the dirt of Buenos Aires, Thiem – a boys’ singles finalist at Roland Garros five years ago – can also boast a defeat of the current French Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka on the clay of Madrid in 2014.
A little over a year later, and barely a month after completing his military service, Thiem won his first ATP Tour title in Nice where he dropped just one set over the course of the week; in the final against Leonardo Mayer.
“I think it was one of the best matches I’ve ever played,” said Thiem. “The first title, I will remember it forever.”
Two more titles followed in 2015 and even though there are others who have made a name for themselves on clay this year – Uruguayan Pablo Cuevas won back-to-back titles in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in February – Thiem has all the credentials to transfer his successes onto one of the big four stages.
He is notably one of the few younger ATP players to use a single-handed backhand and with a potent combination of power and effective court coverage, he also knows how to cut short a rally before he finds himself bogged down in a baseline war of attrition.
Being one of the top 16 seeds in Paris would help Thiem’s cause, as would being in the opposite half of the draw to Djokovic. The French Open may be the one big prize to have so far eluded the world number one, but he will nevertheless arrive in the French capital in May not only the odds-on favourite to win a 12th Grand Slam but with the incentive of becoming the first man to hold all four majors concurrently since Rod Laver in 1969.
History may also be on Thiem’s mind. He was not even two years old when an Austrian man last won a Grand Slam and it’s noticeable that his playing style, specifically his baseline play, has been likened to that of Thomas Muster, the original King of Clay long before Nadal and winner of the Coupe des Mousquetaires in 1995.
Muster was 44 when he bowed out of the top level of men’s tennis at the Vienna Open in 2011 with a straight-sets defeat by an 18-year-old compatriot who was celebrating the first tour-level win of his career. As they shook hands at the net, Muster, no doubt fully aware of the symmetry of the encounter, ruffled the teenager’s hair, perhaps satisfied that his successor had been found.