Forging His Own Path, Dominic Thiem Eyes a Grand Slam Breakthrough

PARIS — With no prologue, I recently asked Dominic Thiem whether the following number sequences meant anything to him: 2 and 4; 4 and 8; and 4 and 2.

He did not hesitate.

“Yeah, sure, that is my head-to-head,” he said, laughing. “I know those numbers very well.”

They are worth retaining. Few players have multiple victories over Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, the tennis titans who have left little room for others to get time in the sun.

But Thiem, the son of an Austrian tennis coach and the pet project of another one, has managed to muscle his way into the light. He is 2-4 against Djokovic; 4-8 against Nadal, whom he beat in Barcelona on clay last month; and 4-2 against Federer, whom he has beaten twice in tight matches this season.

Now comes the hardest part: trying to translate that success into winning his first Grand Slam title at the French Open, with the top-seeded Djokovic, the second-seeded Nadal and the third-seeded Federer still hungry for more hardware in their 30s.

[French Open scoreboard: men’s singles | women’s singles]

How hard has it been for the younger set? Thiem, 25, is the only active men’s player under 28 to have reached a Grand Slam final, losing in straight sets to Nadal in last year’s French Open.

Thiem’s best surface remains clay despite the fact that his most significant career title, against Federer, came early this year on a slow desert hardcourt at the BNP Paribas Open, the Masters 1000 event in Indian Wells, Calif.

Thiem after defeating Roger Federer to win the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., in March.CreditJohn G Mabanglo/EPA, via Shutterstock

“Crazy of course that the first big title wasn’t on clay,” Thiem said.

But Nadal is the best ever on the surface, having won a record 11 French Open singles titles. Thiem has beaten Nadal four times on clay — already something to tell the grandchildren — but he has never done it in a best-of-five-set match. He came closest in a five-set hardcourt thriller in the United States Open quarterfinals last year.

This year, Nadal rounded into ominous form just in time for Roland Garros, by winning the Italian Open.

Was Thiem, seeded No. 4 in Paris and into the second round on Thursday, born in the wrong era?

“No,” he said. “I’m very happy to be there, but it’s different with me, because I’m still going to play when they are all finished. So I will have some years without them, which is going to be amazing for sure. But on the other hand, I love to play against them, and I love to watch them, too. They make you better.”

Thiem, who arrived at our interview in flip flops, seems mild-mannered in person. But he trains as if his life depends on every squat and rally. And he has made some strong decisions this season, none tougher than severing ties with his longtime mentor, Günter Bresnik.

Bresnik, who once coached Boris Becker, has known Thiem since he was 3, when his father, Wolfgang Thiem, began working in Bresnik’s academy in Vienna. Though Wolfgang put the first bricks of his son’s game in place in the very early years, Bresnik built the majority of the structure, taking over when Thiem was 9 and switching him from a two-handed backhand to a one-handed version three years later.

During some of this period, Bresnik also has coached the gifted but less reliable Ernests Gulbis, a Latvian prone to questioning authority.

“Ernests tells me sometimes that Dominic is a fool because he does always what I ask,” Bresnik told me once. “But I say to Ernests, ‘You’re the fool because you pay me, and you don’t use all that’s available.’”

But Thiem is forging his own path now. He is in a serious relationship with the French player Kristina Mladenovic. He began working with a new coach, Nicolás Massú, the former Chilean star, this season and also removed Bresnik as his manager shortly before the start of the French Open.

Thiem and Novak Djokovic, left, shaking hands after Djokovic won their semifinal match at the Madrid Open this month.CreditSergio Perez/Reuters

“My personal freedom on and off the court is for sure one big thing in that decision,” Thiem said about his split from Bresnik. “But on the other hand, I think it’s very normal to split up with a coach, especially in tennis. Everybody splits up with their coaches from time to time. But me and Günter, it was so special because it was 15 years, and somehow nobody could imagine that this relationship ends at one point. Myself either for a long time. I’m super thankful to him, because without him, I wouldn’t ever be the player I am now. But I have the feeling that the time is right now for a change.”

There is still no bigger tennis challenge than beating Nadal at Roland Garros. Only two men have done it since Nadal arrived in 2005: Djokovic and Robin Soderling, who retired in 2015.

Thiem, who is in the opposite half of the draw from Nadal, would most likely have to get past a resurgent Djokovic to even return to the final. But at least Thiem is no longer hesitant to proclaim, loud and clear, that he is in Paris to win. Federer, for one, is happy to hear it.

“It ticks me off when I hear Thiem say, ‘My goal is get to the quarters or the semis,’” Federer said in an interview last month. “Aren’t we, the top guys, all here to win the French or Wimbledon or whatever? Don’t tell me your goal is the quarters. That’s like a loser mentality, so I feel like some of the younger guys have overcome that now.”

Thiem, who has had a hot-and-cold season, defended himself. “I’m not the character who’s going to say I’m going to win every tournament I play,” he said. “The belief is 100 percent there now, but it was not like that two or three years ago or even last year, because I just don’t have the character for that.”

Bresnik declined to discuss details of the split when reached by telephone before coming to Paris to support Gulbis. But he did say that Thiem had long been a player who needed to experience a situation before succeeding.

“He has always gone step by step,” Bresnik said. “The right vines are in place, the grapes have been harvested, and it’s time to make some really good wine. Dominic’s game is mature now.”

Thiem has heard that analogy before.

“I agree,” he said. “Günter gave me the best base I could wish for, but now maybe to take the last step to make it to the really big titles, it’s better things are like they are now.”

Source: NYT

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