Australian Open: Can Dominic Thiem become the next dominant force in men’s tennis?
The ATP’s Next Gen project has been on for a while now, with several players emerging as potential successors to the legendary trio of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, but none being good enough to consistently challenge these juggernauts at the majors.
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic continue to go very strong, and remain extremely motivated, but they are being encouraged in a way by the inability of the younger players to break through. These great men might as well carry on playing if they remain 1, 2, 3 in the world, and are winning all the big tournaments.
The onus is on the younger guys to step up to the plate.
Who amongst these young players is best placed to break the stranglehold of the Big 3?
There are many candidates- Alexander Zverev is a multiple Masters 1000 titlist, a former Nitto ATP Finals champion and a former world No. 3; Daniil Medvedev produced a stunning spell last season and reached a Grand Slam final; Stefanos Tsitsipas won the Nitto ATP Finals title last year; Nick Kyrgios continues to be mentioned from time to time; but to my mind, they are all behind Dominic Thiem in the race to crack the Big 3 and Grand Slam codes.
Admittedly, Thiem isn’t exactly Next Gen- he’s 26 and more experienced than the other players on the list- but he’s also a bit of a late bloomer, relative to the Next Gen players. He didn’t break into the top-ten until June 2016, three months before his 23rd birthday. By comparison, Zverev breached the top ten barrier less than a year later in May 2017, just after his 20th birthday.
Also, several older players have flattered to deceive in the past, Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic being prime examples, only to fade away for one reason or the other, but Thiem looks like he is here to stay.
He has consistently been the second best player on clay, behind Rafael Nadal, over the last few seasons, reaching the French Open final in each of the last two years, but he is now beginning to make a serious impact on hard courts, a testament to his desire to improve and maximize his supreme talents. If he can be anywhere near as consistent on hard courts as he has been on clay, then we may be witnessing the next dominant force in the sport.
There signs are good. Thiem claimed his maiden Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells last season, and went on to win hard court titles in Beijing and Vienna in a strong finish to the year. He was also runner-up at the Nitto ATP Finals, beating Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic along the way before losing to Tsitsipas in the title match.
For all the good things he did last season, he was poor at the non-clay Slams, winning just one match outside Roland Garros. He has set about making amends this year, progressing to last four of the Australian Open- his first Grand Slam semi-final outside the French Open.
Thiem already has a decent record against the Big 3- he’s 5-2 against Federer; 4-9 against Nadal; and 4-6 against Djokovic. It is worth noting that he’s won four of the last five against Djokovic ahead of their possible Australian Open final…
He has beaten Nadal and Djokovic at Grand Slam level. He knows he can beat these guys, and that belief will only grow bigger as he continues to improve.
Beyond the muscular groundstrokes and tremendous athleticism, one key quality that stands Thiem out from his contemporaries is his level-headedness. The Austrian appears to take everything in his stride, and doesn’t get carried away in the moment. Like the Big 3, he has got a great sense of perspective, and has a fairly accurate assessment of where he’s at, and what needs to be done to reach his targets.
One of Thiem or Zverev will advance to his first Australian Open final on Friday, but instead of joining the “coming of age” bandwagon, Thiem understands that there’s still plenty of work to be done before concluding that the Next Gen stars have truly arrived at the Slams.
“…to really break a barrier, one young player has to win a Slam”, Thiem said. “Yeah, one of us is going to be in the finals, but it’s still a very long way to go … I think we are still a pretty long way from overtaking or from breaking this kind of barrier.”
While Thiem contests his fifth Grand Slam semi-final, Zverev is into uncharted territory, as this will be his maiden major semi. Thiem also has the advantage in their head-to-head, winning six of their eight previous matches. The Austrian goes into Friday’s contest as the favourite on paper.
“For me, it’s funny because it’s the first time in a Grand Slam semi-final that I face a younger guy,” Thiem said ahead of the match. “We’re good friends. I’m happy for him, as well, that he’s playing so good here. He made his breakthrough at a Grand Slam”.
“We have no secrets from each other. We played so many times, also on very special occasions already, at the [Nitto] ATP Finals, semi-finals, Roland Garros quarter-finals. It’s a nice rivalry we have. It’s great that we add an Australian Open semi-final to this one.”
It’s a chance for Thiem to strengthen his position as the leader of the younger guns, and earn another shot at Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final.
Zverev vs Thiem is live from Melbourne on Friday, 21 January from 7:30pm local time/ 8:30am GMT