Dominic Thiem: Taking Nothing For Granted

He bent over double beside his chair as though suddenly gut-punched, covering his arm with his chest in a roughly protective way and cradling himself inwards in a motion that immediately sounded alarms. Cameras zoned in at angles desperate but they needn’t have bothered as he straightened up awkwardly shortly thereafter, shutters clattering court-side to land the shot of wrinkled-eyed angst.

Holding his wrist as though it might suddenly crack between his fingers and shatter around his toes, Dominic Thiem’s grimace told a story of someone unfortunately all too familiar with what was happening. It’s July 2021 and this was supposed to be the year of sit-back-and-play-relaxed tennis for the then-current US Open Champion. But professional sport leaves no room for supposed tos and so the Austrian had instead found himself locked-up with his own body, parts of which appeared keen to devour his chances early in multiple events so far that season. Even his comfort clay couldn’t offer respite, instead tossing him a first round French Open exit that stung with an itch of having been two sets up.

And so he found himself on the grass, a surface that’s never offered titles freely and has always required specialised awareness of movement necessary to plunder wins openly. A hit-harder-hit-harder game like Thiem’s can absolutely overcome surface-based uncertainty but in doing so, it risks lodging itself into bodily cracks and prying away the floorboards, busting nails pinning muscle together and roughhousing joints amidst splintered screams.

And oh, how they did scream, so very loud they did yell as Thiem found himself pushed out wide on his forehand side on this pale sunshiny afternoon, taken there by a heavy and flat backhand crosscourt by his opponent, Adrian Mannarino. Thiem could only flick at the ball with his arm, framing it jarringly, and as he pulled up and out of the shot, his face told us that he knew.

Minutes later, he was leaving the court, retiring from the contest just a singular game away from winning the first set, just a whole world away from his body agreeing to take him there.

***

Had we known then what we do now, we may well have sat up just little straighter and watched just a little closer, drank just a little bit more from the mug of Dominic Thiem’s play, so fast would we need to grow used to his continual tour disappearance, so robbed of seeing what a man could do in the immediate aftermath of such notable major-winning ascension.

Tennis allows its participants to dream and on very rare occasions, to consistently achieve at the upper-most levels. Almost never however does it allow them to sustain, to thrive and grow roots in spots of outrageous success. So few have managed to do so and those that have have built houses there, placed down objects of such homely permanence that they are only ever really threatened by the passage of time and the ageing of their games. For Thiem, it felt like he’d only just lain his final brick across a finely applied layer of cement, completing a small but notable place for himself to live within these parts. He’d forged the key and opened the door that he’d fitted himself and looked upon the hallway of his career so far, the journey he’d made and suffered within, all the way up to the centrepiece, his US Open title sat atop his mantlepiece. He’d closed his eyes once, only once, just to take it in and digest what he’d achieved, to take a moment to acknowledge how very worth it the struggle had been, but when he opened them again after only a moment, it was all falling. The walls cracking. The carpets bursting. The roof sagging. In seconds, it was gone, leaving only Thiem in the doorway frame, a sinking feeling already dragging at him, desperate to take him down to depths unknown by the knowledge of just how many steps would now need to be retread and rehabbed in order to make it back to this point.

Since then, there’s been a shape where Dominic Thiem used to fit on the ATP tour, a place he used to occupy. Others have padded themselves around the edges, creating space for themselves and making their own presences felt in his absence but the Austrian with his tennis that used to roll clouds above stadiums high and clap down thunder that echoed through his matches has been very much missed.

And so tomorrow, as Thiem makes his return to competitive tennis action for the first time in nine months, his fans will be excited but weary and very much aware of how excruciatingly little can every really truly be taken for granted. They’ll just be happy to have him back and active, his immediate on-court success irrelevant when place in direct comparison with simply being able to watch him play. For Thiem himself, however, this’ll be the first brick he’s successfully replaced on the plot of land that he used to call his own.

Down And Out: Dominic Thiem injured his wrist in the middle of a match against Adrian Mannarino last year. Screenshot: Tennis TV

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