Towards the end, he was clawing at his face in frustration as if trying to rid himself of the faults of his game by the grip of his fingertips alone. Those errors remained stuck in place like long discarded gum, hardening as cement would and freeing unforced errors that ultimately came thick and fast, devouring any chance he had of winning, leaving him slump-shouldered and finished.
This was Dominic Thiem’s eleventh tennis match loss in a row, a streak that uglies itself throughout the past year or so of his career and marks a significant downturn in his fortunes. His 2020 U.S. Open title seems a distant memory and it must be a difficult for him not to cast his thoughts back to that moment where all had seemed together and right and finally worth the struggle.
Mere months later and he found himself toiling in a sinkhole that ultimately ended his 2021 season early and has carried him limping through until now. If this all seems a tad dramatic, that’s because it is. Thiem’s absence from the game and eventual scratchy return is filled with questions that nobody can yet find the answers for and given the Austrian’s prominence at the top of world tennis before his wrist injury, this messiness for him now signifies the heartbreak that must come with the fightback.
There’s been a lot of talk of Thiem’s forehand, that weapon that opponents cowered in fear from not so long ago, nightmaring their dreams the night before they faced him and leaving a thin film of cold sweat across their brows. It’s a looser shot now, not as tight or as explosive or quite as consistent as it used to be. It still produces moments of breathtaking power but there’s errors there now as well, mistakes that come sliding into rallies at inopportune moments and gift points to those same opponents that once screamed in frustration as it scorched the baseline corner line beneath their feet and scurried off as just one more winner on a long list of winners.
And so many have already said that Thiem is surely done if he cannot reclaim that old forehand wing of his. “That’s the shot that won him a major!” they cry and they might well be right but I can’t believe that Thiem is not a good enough player to be able to adapt his game to fit a more comfortable and less physically debilitating swing path. His forehand was a lot but it wasn’t everything and Thiem’s game has layers to it that he now must explore further if he hopes to get back to somewhere close to his best.
And to do that, he must have confidence in himself, something he admits he has wrestled with of late on the match court.
Should he be able to locate his confidence in the back-catalogue of his mental strength, trust and faith in his ability as a top level player will propel Thiem far. Indeed, it’ll leverage him through any necessary-but-difficult-to-accept changes to his backswing and shot preparation, however small or big those changes need to be.
Before anything else must come a match win. This streak and the frequent mentioning of it across social media will be doing his mindset no favours and so to end it as soon as possible will be front and centre of his goals moving on from the 2022 French Open. Let’s sort that out first and foremost. If that means dropping down to challengers and playing smaller clay court events while the ATP convene on grass, so be it. Let them have their party without him. He’ll be back to greet them when he’s ready.
They say it’s the hope that kills you. I’d tell Dominic Thiem fans that the opposite is also true. The lack of hope will drag at you further with every loss. Keep the hope close, even if it leaves you gutted out with disappointment at times. And when Thiem is once more on an upward trajectory – and he will get there! – make sure you shout and scream and yell about it until your nearest and dearest tell you to shut the fuck up.
And then yell about it just a bit more.