If 2020 was the best year of Dominic Thiem’s career so far, then 2021 is shaping up as one of the worst.
The Austrian ended a four-year wait for a Grand Slam champion not named Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer when he came from two sets down to beat Alexander Zverev at the US Open in September. Having lost his previous three major finals, it was a landmark moment for Thiem, and one he hoped would pave the way for more success at the very top level.
“I expect it’s going to be easier for me now in the biggest tournaments,” he said after a nervy final.
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How wrong he has been so far.
Thiem’s 2020 season didn’t close out too badly, with a quarter-final run at the French Open a few weeks later – having not played any clay warm-up events – and then a three-set defeat to Daniil Medvedev in the final of the ATP Finals. It seemed that Thiem, along with Medvedev and Zverev, would be leading the charge against the ‘Big Three’ this year.
But Thiem’s 2021 season has been hit with so many snags that now - after injury forced him out of Wimbledon - it's worth considering what’s left of it.
The first signs of problems were at the Australian Open as he lost in straight sets in the last 16 to Grigor Dimitrov, having come through an epic clash with Nick Kyrgios in the previous round. Eurosport pundit Tim Henman said he thought Thiem had “run out of gas”, while Thiem hinted afterwards that all was not well.
“Some little physical issues. I don't want to go closer to them. I don't want to find any excuses. But the thing also is that I'm also not a machine. I mean, sometimes I would like to be, but there are really, really bad days. As soon as you're not a hundred percent there on the court on this level, then results like this come up, and that's exactly what happened today.”
He next travelled to Doha, losing his second match to Roberto Bautista Agut, before a first-round loss to world No 81 Lloyd Harris in Dubai saw him turn his attentions to the clay, saying he needed to take time off to “reset”. He refused to blame a foot problem which had bothered him since the end of 2020 – “it's not really the main issue, it's just that I'm not playing well” – and after nearly two months off he made an encouraging return in Madrid as he reached the quarter-finals.
But he could not build on that showing, and described a first-round loss to Cameron Norrie in Lyon as a “huge step back”. A shock first-round defeat followed at the French Open, where he had made at least the semis for four of the last five years. Eurosport's Mats Wilander said after the loss that Thiem didn't look as "motivated as before and "might need to take a little bit of a break at this moment."
Now Thiem’s status for the rest of the summer is unclear after a wrist injury in Mallorca. He was forced to retire against Adrian Mannarino, saying he heard a “crack”, and is out of Wimbledon.
He said on
that he will do his best “to be back on court soon” and is “determined to come back stronger”. However, he will need to wear a splint for five weeks, and will miss tournaments in Hamburg and Gstaad, as well as the Olympics, which he was set to skip anyway. The big question now is whether he will be fit for the US swing and the potential defence of his title in New York. The US Open starts on August 30 and Thiem’s form this year doesn’t suggest a second Grand Slam is around the corner. It’s clear that something is lacking.
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After his defeat to Pablo Andujar at the French Open he said his “shots are missing power” and he didn’t feel like the “real me…my version who is able to play for big titles”. Are his struggles partly though because he finally won a big title? Is there still the question of ‘what comes next’?
Thiem said after winning the US Open: “I dedicated basically my whole life until this point to win one of the four majors. Now I did it.” The short-term impact of achieving his life goal still seems as though it is filtering through a year on. And he seems aware of it.
Speaking after the French Open he reflected: “It's amazing to reach such a big goal, but at the same time, something is different after. As I said before the tournament, 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, well, right now I don't know when the moment is coming.”
Hopefully for Thiem it comes soon. If not in New York, then a tournament win elsewhere would no doubt do his confidence the world of good - and maybe prove the starting point for a run at more Grand Slam titles.
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