Will the 2020 US Open be Dominic Thiem’s breakthrough Slam?

    Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for over 35 years, mostly recently for ESPN. He is a former WTA Writer of the Year and the author of numerous books, including the classic “The Courts of Babylon” and the New York Times bestseller (with Pete Sampras), “A Champion’s Mind.”

NEW YORK — Dominic Thiem still likes to tee up the tape of his 2018 US Open quarterfinal with then-No. 1 Rafael Nadal, to marvel at the scene late that night in Arthur Ashe Stadium, to revel at the quality of play throughout that 4-hour, 49-minute clash.

“I like to watch the highlights of that one, even the whole match sometimes when I am bored or when I want to relive the feelings somehow,” Thiem said on Thursday at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center after advancing under very different circumstances to the third round of this resoundingly silent US Open. “It is 100 percent one of my three top matches. It was my first night match on Ashe. Great rallies. Great atmosphere. We really delivered for those fans.”

No matter how far Thiem advances in this edition of the American Grand Slam, the prohibition against spectators — adopted to eliminate the risk of triggering a COVID-19 spike — ensures he will have no opportunity to engage that “midnight madness” crowd. Thiem hasn’t fussed about that. While he characterized the ambiance here as “a little sad,” he remains in hot pursuit of that elusive first Grand Slam title he has been denied on three different occasions — most recently at the Australian Open, shortly before the game shut down.

Why do circumstances keep denying Thiem something that he, the closest thing in tennis to the good scout, seems by all measure to deserve?

Bad luck is part of the answer. Last September, Thiem was unable to reprise that stirring run of 2018 because he developed a fierce cold and fever a week before the start of the US Open and meekly lost his first-round match here. Thiem played a fine match against Novak Djokovic in his next Grand Slam outing — January’s Australian Open final. That set him up nicely for this year’s French Open. Then came the coronavirus pandemic and the postponement of the French Open. The clay-court Grand Slam, which was to have started in late May, will be starting Sept. 21 in Paris.

“I was very close to them before the break,” Thiem said of his legendary rivals Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer as he explained why he chose to play in this US Open instead of remaining at home in Europe and focusing on the upcoming clay events in which he so excels. “The last time, with the five-set loss in the finals of the Australian Open. I guess, or I hope, that not that much changed during the break.”

The big three, most notably Nadal, have been a near insurmountable obstacle for everyone, but Thiem has made more progress than anyone in recent years. When Thiem belted his way to the French Open final in 2018, he became the only active player younger than 27 to reach the championship match at a major in the big-three era. The King of Clay stepped up to stop him, but any characterization of Thiem as a mere clay-court expert, doomed to live in Nadal’s long shadow, was destroyed in that memorable US Open quarterfinal.

Thiem, who just turned 27 on Sept. 3, realized after that match that he could compete with the elites on the two most important surfaces of the ATP Tour. “I was really disappointed to not get that win, but it helped me finish great that year,” Thiem said. “It was a huge boost to my confidence.”

The leap to that next plateau was also a payoff for all the work Thiem had put into developing his punishing style. Thiem powered his way onto the world stage in 2015, winning three titles (all on outdoor clay) with a bread-and-butter game anchored by an atomic forehand, a high-kicking serve and a lashing, one-handed backhand. He also developed a nearly masochistic appetite for work.

Gunter Bresnik, Thiem’s coach since he was just 8, was a taskmaster. Thiem, Bresnik’s most gifted pupil since Boris Becker, had a ferocious capacity for training. Some days at tournaments, Thiem practiced for as long as two hours — after playing an official match. The 6-foot-1 glutton for punishment once said of his coach’s demands: “I know that it’s necessary, and I don’t know something else.”

While grinding his way up through the rankings, Thiem also was criticized by some for playing too many tournaments. Although one important observer endorsed his approach: “I think young guys have to be able to do that,” Federer told the New York Times in 2016. “You’ve got to grind it out and get used to it.”

Thiem’s industriousness, and his lethal blend of consistency and rallying prowess, were in some ways part of a cultural tennis heritage. Austria’s last (and only other) elite player was 1995 French Open champion Thomas Muster. The winner of 44 clay-court titles, Muster was a spartan who never ventured far from the baseline and relished pulverizing opponents in agonizingly long matches. He provided the blueprint for Wolfgang Thiem, Dominic’s father, and Bresnik.

While Thiem is a match for Muster in terms of intensity, he’s more emotional and expressive. Last year, he wandered down an internet rabbit hole and emerged a supporter of “4ocean,” a company with strong environmental engagement. He also has supported the work of Flojitos de Papeles, a non-governmental organization that finds temporary homes for street dogs.

Thiem is also not hesitant to show his emotions on the court.

“His focus is unquestionable,” ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said. But, citing the visible ebb and flow of his emotions during a match, she added, “He’s not as contained as he could be for a guy who wants to be on top. Tennis is like poker — you can’t let an opponent be fueled by what he sees.”

Even after Thiem’s breakout 2018, his team (led by his father) still thought he wasn’t a finished product. They were the architects of his one-dimensional style, but they also recognized it was insufficient to consistently challenge the three epochal players on all surfaces. So Bresnick recruited Nicolas Massu, the surprise gold medalist from Chile in singles and doubles at the 2004 Olympic Games, as an associate coach on a trial basis in late 2018.

The relationship became more formal early in 2019. Just three weeks into the new, committed arrangement, Thiem won the ATP Masters 1000 event at Indian Wells — arguably, the most prestigious ATP Tour event, and the first Masters title Thiem bagged in three tries. The key to his upset of Federer in the final was a more well-rounded game, with deeper timbre and color.

“When we began to work, it was on being more unpredictable on hard courts,” Massu told ESPN late last year. “Dominic needed to finish more points at the net, play with more height variation in his shots (meaning, among other things, slice backhands) and to return from different positions inside or behind the court. He put those things in his game fast and won the tournament. Then, of course, on clay, he is already one of the best in the world.”

The new perspective Massu brought to the game and the swift results exposed the fault lines in Thiem’s long relationship with Bresnik. Thiem and Massu hit it off so well that by June, Bresnick was out, both as coach and manager of Thiem. There was more to it than the insight Massu brought to Thiem’s tennis. The player told the New York Times in May on 2019: “[Without Bresnik] I wouldn’t ever be the player I am now. My personal freedom on and off the court is for sure one big thing in that decision.”

Not long thereafter, Thiem powered to his second consecutive French Open final, where he was once again bamboozled by Nadal. This time, Thiem did somewhat better, winning a set. When Nadal was asked later in the summer if Thiem might take over injured Andy Murray’s place atop ATP royalty, he said: “He is there already. Every year, he’s improving. Every day, he is very solid, and every year is more solid.”

Nadal wasn’t exaggerating: Thiem’s 13-18 cumulative record against the big three represents a higher winning percentage than even Murray has accumulated against those rivals — 41.9% to 34.1%. Only Thiem and Djokovic have at least four wins over Nadal on clay, and Thiem’s five titles in 2019 were equaled only by Djokovic’s. Thiem’s 211 wins from 2016 through 2019 are the most of any ATP player.

“Thiem has been the second-best player on clay for two years now,” Shriver said.

One of Thiem’s most appealing qualities as a competitor is that he comes to play.

Nadal, 34, is not at this US Open. He chose to remain at home, keeping his game in tune on the same clay that he and Thiem will again find underfoot at the end of the month in Paris. Why, some wondered, did Thiem opt for Gotham given the onerous protocols, as well as the rapid transition he will have to make from the relatively hard courts of the U.S. to the soft dirt of Europe in a few weeks’ time?

It’s simple: Thiem loves to compete. All the losses he has taken to his iconic rivals have just whetted his appetite. “It was easier, for sure, in a different era to win big titles,” he said after the Australian Open final loss to Djokovic. “That’s 100 percent. But I’m happy I can compete with these guys on the best level. I really hope also that I win my maiden slam when they’re still around, because it just counts more.”

Winning this one, Thiem knows, will be a tricky, unprecedented assignment.

“Tennis is such a mental sport, and I guess it makes it way more difficult without fans,” he said Thursday. “In your head, there is a feeling or memory that if you play a great point, the stadium goes crazy. Now here, you play a great point and the stadium is just silent. Only maybe your coach and team is here. That makes it very, very lonely and very, very tough. It’s going to be an interesting experience.”

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