Winning your first Grand Slam is a breakthrough moment for any young tennis player. It should be more so in this era of men’s tennis where the dominance of legends and inconsistency of the chasing pack has made a first-time champion a rare commodity.
But it has proven to be quite the challenge for Dominic Thiem, who became the first male player born in the 1990s to win a Grand Slam at the depleted US Open last year but has stumbled since.
Once the heir-apparent to Rafael Nadal on clay, the two-time Roland Garros runner-up was knocked out in the first round in the biggest upset of the opening day in the 2021 edition. The fourth seed blew a two-set lead to go down to 35-year-old Pablo Andujar 4-6, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 in a match that lasted four-and-a-half hours. He was unable to hold off the challenge from the world No 68, who had never beaten a top-five player or won from two-sets down before. It was a shocking spiral.
At any other Grand Slam, Thiem’s first-round exit would have perhaps been understandable. In any other year, his earliest exit at French Open could have been seen as an anomaly.
But for the 2018 and 2019 finalist, losing in the first round of the Major where he first and most consistently impressed, after finally becoming a Grand Slam champion, should ring alarm bells.
He was the only Grand Slam champ in the open bottom half of the men’s draw and a path seemed tailor-made for him even with his current indifferent form. The once ‘clay-court grinder’ had developed into a world-beating player in the last two years and was expected to make 2021 even bigger as a Slam champ. But as things stand, he is 9-8 in the season that included a month-long injury layoff and evident drop in his once relentless level.
Consistency has been an issue for Thiem in the past but of the small Slam contenders pool, he was the most reliable bet and strongest of fighters. So much so that he was long expected to be the first 90’s kid on the ATP Tour to win a Major, which he did. Even his breakthrough in the US Open final last year was a five-set battling slugfest against Alexander Zverev, won in a tiebreak.
But that US Open final, instead of being a feather in his cap, has become a millstone around his neck.
Not in denial
To Thiem’s credit, he is self aware and acknowledged the challenge he’s faced since winning a Major — the single-minded goal he had for most part of his career.
“It’s amazing to reach such a big goal, but at the same time, something is different after. It’s a big learning process, and despite the loss, which hurts so much, I still hope I can bounce back stronger than before. But, right now I don’t know when [that] moment is coming,” he said on Sunday.
Motivation is not the issue as of now, even if it was a while back as mentioned in a local interview. He has also recovered physically from the injury that affected him at Australian Open. Instead, against Andujar, he simply couldn’t find the shots needed or make the plays to dig himself out.
“I was not struggling with my motivation. The game was just not there today. The shots are not powerful enough, not accurate enough, not moving well enough ... I don’t really know why. It’s not the real me. Or the version that can play for big titles,” he added.
He is certainly not alone in this confusion. Almost all younger players have struggled with this. But it’s different for him now that he has crossed that threshold into being a Major winner. It’s not just about pressure against big names and a burning drive to prove something, it’s the increased expectations because he has done it once already.
He is not alone in this either, there’s also the case of Marin Cilic who didn’t add to his Major tally despite making Slam finals. But while Cilic’s 2014 US Open title felt like a surprise run, with Thiem a Major felt a long time coming, despite, or because of, his three Major and countless Masters runner-up trophies.
Even the 27-year-old doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with him as yet. He spoke honestly about his loss, about how he was almost always on the upward trajectory for most his career. But this loss feels different, like the start of a downhill ride if not arrested.
“Losing after being up two sets is very strange to me and I have to analyse it and think about what’s wrong. And then of course try to hit back as soon as possible… It does feel very tough, as since 2016 I was used to playing very deep in this tournament,” he said.
Crossroads in his career
What he needs now is to not only analyse what’s wrong, but also find a spark, a decided goal to put the blinkers on and work. Maybe goal-setting is proving challenging, even though there is plenty more to achieve. He has certainly shown great intent in matches since the US Open.
There is 2021 Australian Open match against Nick Kyrgios, easily one of the best Slam matches of his career as he came back from two sets down battling an on-fire player and a partisan crowd. Or the semi-final against Novak Djokovic at the ATP Finals where he played two sensational tiebreaks. That is the energy he needs to find again and channelise, it’s what made him the phenomenal player he was much before he was a Major champion.
Thiem is now at a crossroads. He can either continue to meander, knowing that he has achieved what he originally set out to when he started playing tennis. Winning a tennis Major, even one, is no joke. But he also has the option to reset and chose the other path which will require him to rediscover the fire — and the game — that put him on the world stage in the first place.
How he bounces back from this funk, as much as his Grand Slams runs, might well determine the kind of player Thiem will go down in tennis history.
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