By Jethro Broughton
It was June last year, and a gorgeous summer’s day for some grass court tennis at the Mallorca Open. I settled down to watch Dominic Thiem play Adrian Mannarino, praying that the Austrian’s run of poor form and mental/physical issues were a thing of the past. It hadn’t been easy going as a Thiem fan in 2021, with disappointing losses occurring far too frequently for a player of his calibre.
By his standards, the clay season was a big disappointment – his first-round loss at the French Open was especially tough to stomach. I remained hopeful, however, that he would surprise everyone with a storming run on the grass. After all, he won the title in Stuttgart back in 2016 – beating Roger Federer in the process. He’s always had the tools to exceed on the surface, but his preparation for it has often been hindered by his clay court endeavours.
With that in mind, I was highly optimistic when he went a break up against Mannarino, who is always a fantastic player on the grass. Unfortunately, disaster then struck. Thiem whipped a forehand and immediately pulled up in a great deal of pain. It was worrying. It got far worse however, when he uttered to the trainer that he felt his wrist “crack”, just as my heart did hearing those words.
Wrist injuries in tennis are historically a nightmare to return from (just look at del Potro). Particularly on a player’s dominant arm, given the amount of pressure, strain and pure hell the wrist goes through just to play a decent shot. I knew deep down that a lengthy spell off the court was inevitable for Thiem, but perhaps not quite to this extent.
Watching tennis without Dominic Thiem for the past 8 months or so has been truly painful. Ever since I first saw him play, I’ve been in absolute awe of his powerful groundstrokes and his ability to find an enormous winner from anywhere on the court, time after time. Whether he was crushing an almighty forehand or striking that beautiful one-handed backhand that he possesses, it was truly special. Before Medvedev’s rise to the top, he was the only player who could go toe-to-toe with the Big Three and beat them consistently.
The term “box office” gets thrown around in relation to certain players – but I can’t think of anyone more watchable than Thiem. Not only is his breathtaking power a sight to behold, the way he’s developed his game with more variety and skill just adds more layers to an already wonderful player to watch. He’s also a great fighter and just an all-round great guy. To put it simply, he’s sorely missed in the world of tennis (especially by me.)
The comeback has been delayed, delayed, and delayed again more times than I can count. It’s been a constant cycle of Thiem announcing a return date only to then withdraw at the last minute, citing a new injury or that he’s not 100% ready to return. Needless to say, it’s been a difficult period. Every time I’d be praying that THIS time would be different – only to see another selfie-style video on Thiem’s Instagram announcing his inevitable withdrawal.
Recently I began to wonder how much of this is simply down to physical issues. Often, his reasoning would be along the lines of not being 100% to return to the top of the game. I’m entirely sympathetic towards this and think it’s great that he wants to return right to the top of the game – but it’s going to be a difficult journey.
After such a devastating injury that’s kept him out of the game for so long, it’s hard to even comprehend how scary the comeback process would be. If he reinjures his wrist, then the rest of his career is in doubt. Given that, I can’t imagine he’d ever return absolutely 100% ready. He could feel 99% ready on the physical side, but the slightest of doubts in his mind about his wrist will be enough to dissuade him from returning. Surely, the mental side of things has been a factor in holding him back.
So, when he announced that he’d return to action at next week’s Marbella Challenger, I was thrilled. This is the ideal way for Thiem to start competing again, and find that confidence he’ll desperately need to climb back up the rankings. There will be little pressure on him (hopefully), and he can test out where his game really is against opponents that won’t push him as much as the top tour-level players. Match practice is often the best indicator of where you’re at, and doing this at a lower-level event is perfect for him.
Thiem’s been uploading plenty of videos of him practicing, and he looks in phenomenal shape. He’s looked well physically for weeks – so this decision may indicate he’s in a better place mentally now. It’s an important reminder that physical and mental health are JUST as important as each other. These guys are human beings and we should always be aware of that.
I’m not expecting him to win the whole tournament (though I really, really want him to), but if he’s back on court feeling confident again, that’s all that matters. I personally cannot wait to see him crushing tennis balls with that Thor-like power again. May the ATP Tour be wary – the Prince of Clay is back.