It is pretty incredible that in a virus-curtailed tennis calendar—it saw plenty of tournaments being shelved, including a Grand Slam in Wimbledon—Dominic Thiem found the time, space and wherewithal to demand the reformation of the Big Four club. It is also pretty incredible that he did this despite losing more big finals (the Australian Open in January and the ATP Tour Finals in London on Sunday) than he won—the US Open in September.
But view this prism from Thiem’s line-of-sight and it becomes evident how, in 2020, he made a move that many had promised but none had pulled off in a long, long time—that of going from best-of-the-rest to a prospective great. With Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer still relevant in Melbourne at the beginning of the year, Thiem made his first Slam final outside of Paris, beating Nadal along the way and losing only to Djokovic in five draining sets.
Then he forced his way into the second Sunday at the US Open, a surface so unsuited to his slow-court skills that in the tune-up event in New York, he lost in the first round to a man who is yet to win an ATP title in Filip Krajinovic. Yet, there he was in the middle of an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium three short weeks later, winning his first Slam final in four attempts.
And Thiem would’ve made a better case for himself than a quarterfinal exit at the French Open—a tournament where he had made heads turn in the first place by reaching the final in the last two years—had it not been held in an alien month, immediately on the back of his bruising US Open campaign.
“It has been an outstanding year,” Thiem said on Sunday after losing the final match of the tennis season to Daniil Medvedev, the second consecutive year he has fallen just short of the ATP Tour Finals trophy. “I have reached one of my big lifetime goals with winning that Grand Slam. So even though it’s a tough year, it will always have a special place in my heart, hundred percent.”
A HALLMARK OF HOPE
The landscape of tennis has been littered with false hope over the last few years, and the winners of the last four ATP Tour Finals have been emblematic of that delusion. Grigor Dimitrov, champion in 2017, is yet to make a Grand Slam final, quite like 2019’s winner in Stefanos Tsitsipas. While 2018 and 2020’s year-end winners, Alexander Zverev and Medvedev, have reached one each. Thiem, on the other hand, has made four (same as Stan Wawrinka) on three different surfaces.
When the Austrian made his first French Open semifinal in 2016, his defining characteristics were his scything single-handed backhand and the ability to pound the ball harder than it had ever been hit on the circuit. Today, the hallmark of his game is hope—not just as a future star, but in matches that a lesser player would consider a lost cause. Especially in a lost cause.
No player before Thiem had made a fist of an Australian Open final after Djokovic had won the first set. Remember the 2019 edition when the Serb quickly wrapped up the first set against Nadal and went on to give him all of one point on serve in the second? In fact, before 2020, Djokovic had lost all of one set in a Melbourne final after winning the first set. Until Thiem came back to win sets two and three this year and ended up stretching and troubling Djokovic for four hours.
This newfound never-give-up attitude was raised to its optimal limit in the US Open final when he fought back from two sets and a break down against Zverev. The German then had the championship on his racquet at 5-3 in the fifth, but Thiem simply refused to roll over and limped his way to a miraculous turnaround, the first of its kind in New York in 71 years.
“I hope that everybody in my family, especially my grandparents, made it well through the match. It couldn’t have been easy for them for sure, so I hope they’re all fine,” he said at the Flushing Meadows trophy ceremony and laughed. The well-being of his grandparents would perhaps have been on his mind last week as well, when he rallied back from 0-4 down against Djokovic in the final tiebreak of the semifinal.
“I thought that after my first big title in New York, maybe I am going to be a little more calm on court,” he said after making his second straight final in the London year-ender. “But I guess that was a mistake. I was just as nervous as before.”
These nerves, however, are a good thing; a telltale sign that a player is hungry for more than he has already achieved.
They held Thiem in good stead to become the first man in his twenties to win a Grand Slam since Andy Murray in 2016, and the youngest since Juan Martin del Potro in 2009. In 2021, his nearest rivals in Federer, Nadal and Djokovic turn 40, 35 and 34 respectively. Thiem, who turns 28 only during the defence of his US Open title, is by far the youngest among his new equals.