It Takes Time

There’s a moment during the very first scene of Friends. Rachel hasn’t even made her entrance yet, that’s how early it is. Ross is lamenting that his wife discovered she in fact was attracted to women and left him. “I just want to be married again!” he tells the rest of the gang.

If you can take the cringe-inducing boatload of jokes up to the aforementioned moment, it is at the end of this clip. Rachel walks in soon after (foreshadowing!).

It’s easy to see how he feels. Getting divorced means a total reset: going from having a life partner to being single. Reasonable goals after that might be to go on a date, or to get to know oneself better, but relative to being married, those ideals sound woefully small. Sadly for Ross, you can’t rush into a marriage (well, you can, and he did, but it didn’t end well). Getting back to that point tends to require a lengthy process — finding the right person, then progressing through a relationship. Wanting to skip the journey when you’ve already spent some time at the destination is an understandable whim.

I imagine Dominic Thiem feels similarly. He’s finally back on court now, after months of injury after injury delaying his comeback. Currently ranked 54th in the world (below Roger Federer, somehow, who has been inactive for most of the last two years), Thiem was once ranked as high as #3. It wasn’t his ranking that best exemplified what he brought to the tour, though, it was his ability to challenge Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Thiem improved steadily for a few years, then managed to snap Djokovic’s 26-match winning streak at majors in the 2019 Roland-Garros semifinals. A few months later, he toppled Nadal in the Australian Open quarterfinals, then came inches away from following up to beat Djokovic in the final. He did lose, but he was the player closest to overthrowing the old guard.

Thiem played blinding tennis, firing winners at 100 miles per hour on points both consequential and not. He developed exciting rivalries with the Big Three (he’s beaten them a combined 16 times!), plus Medvedev. He beat Nadal and Djokovic at the World Tour Finals in 2020, and though Medvedev did the same thing, it felt like the two titans played at a higher level against Thiem. He just beat them anyway. He was the heir to the Big Three. The top of men’s tennis was exciting — dare I say volatile? — with Thiem around.

Just look at some of the forehands Thiem hits in this video.

Thiem’s skill wasn’t just his power. He became a startlingly adept defender. Against Nadal at the tour finals in 2020, Thiem had a break point to get back on serve in the second set, having won the first. Nadal hit a bunch of classic crosscourt forehands, pushing Thiem farther and farther into his backhand corner. Then Nadal unloaded on a forehand down the line.

I would say that this forehand would have put away virtually everyone on tour, except that this forehand has put away virtually everyone on tour. Thiem, somehow, chased it down and reset — no, not reset, something better than that — the point with an angled slice on the run from miles behind the baseline. Nadal could barely get to the ball, and Thiem slammed a pair of vicious groundstrokes in response, the latter going for a winner. He looked set to make a serious run at the majors, to displace Djokovic and Nadal more than he already had.

That mindblowing point plus several others are in the highlights above.

You know the rest of the story. After breaking through for a well-deserved first major title at the 2020 U.S. Open and wreaking havoc at the World Tour Finals, Thiem’s motivation flagged (understandable, really, seeing that he’d achieved his lifelong goal), then he got injured. He is now trying to make his way back. He started at a Challenger event in Marbella and got bounced in the first round by Pedro Cachín. Now competing at the Serbian Open, there’s little reason to think things will go significantly better for Thiem; his opener is against the tricky John Millman. It’s not that Thiem isn’t the better player by far, it’s that comebacks take time.

I just don’t want to wait.

I have no right to be impatient. Thiem’s been through hell injury-wise, and it’s taken a huge effort just to get back into playing shape. I should be more than satisfied about him merely being back on court. Comebacks are a tricky beast, though; it’s very rarely as simple as a great player returning from injury and immediately playing great tennis. The Thiem of 2020, the winner-blaster eager to hit lines during tiebreaks, is a different guy than the Thiem beginning his comeback. That Thiem had a huge string of great results behind him, plus confidence that his body could hold up, because it was doing just that. This Thiem, even if he somehow maintains some confidence, has to build from the ground up in terms of form. Rediscovering and relearning the rigors of professional matches can be a lengthy process — look at Djokovic, another player who is badly missed in the later rounds of tournaments. He is just 2-2 on the year and got breadsticked by Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in his last match, which was played after a long layoff (a self-imposed one, I should add).

We’re so early in Thiem’s comeback that his next peak could be any number of months away, and I miss him, miss the way the game felt when he was at his best. Stefanos Tsitsipas has stepped into his heir-apparent role on clay, and Carlos Alcaraz is clearly the next generational talent it once appeared that Thiem was, but I want to see the Austrian back in the mix. I don’t just miss his tennis, I feel for him — it was less than three years ago when Rafael Nadal said he was positive Thiem would win Roland-Garros one day during the 2019 trophy ceremony after the Parisian major. Rafa was being courteous, but Thiem had made the last two finals and lost to the eventual champion the last four years. It seemed like a safe bet at the time, but it looks like far from a sure thing now — Nadal and Djokovic are still around, Tsitsipas is now a beast on clay, Alcaraz might be an invincible world-beater in another year or two. Plus, there’s no guarantee Thiem will even rediscover his best tennis. Many players have their primes severed by injury and can never scale the mountain again; it would be more than understandable if Thiem fell into that category.

I don’t want Thiem to have to get back in tune with all the things that made him great before he got hurt. I don’t want to get used to seeing his name in a draw and having it mean something different than it used to. I don’t want him to have to slog through a bunch of low-level tournaments just to have a shot at getting back to a level he already attained. I want him to be able to step through a time warp and come out the other side fully used to the tour again, drilling backhand winners down the line like there’s no tomorrow. I just want him to be at the top of the game again.

This isn’t how injury comebacks work. Thiem will understandably need a few tournaments to reacclimate to his game and his opponents. And if the best part of his career is behind him, he has nothing to be ashamed of. YouTube is the proud home of hundreds of his blazing down-the-line winners, many of them hit against the very best of players.

I know all that. Thiem isn’t going to magically start playing like he did at the end of 2020.

But it would still be nice.

Published by Owen

Owen has been a tennis fan since Roland-Garros in 2016. Initially a Federer fan, his preferences evened out the more tennis he watched and the more he learned. He started a blog (https://racketblog.com/) in early 2019. In the summer of 2021, he got a media credential at the ATP 250 event in Newport, Rhode Island, and got to talk to a few players, including former world No. 5 Kevin Anderson and rising star Jenson Brooksby. Owen will argue to the death that the 2009 Australian Open semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Fernando Verdasco is the greatest match ever, he hates that one-handed backhands are praised so often for their subjective elegance (sucking praise away from the more effective two-handers), and he thinks the best part of tennis is its scoring system, the mental and physical challenge not far behind. You can follow him on Twitter @tennisnation.

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