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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

How clay-bred Dominic Thiem turned hard court contender

Dominic Thiem finished the season last year with wins over both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at the ATP Finals. Now, the 27-year-old is in his second-straight hard court Grand Slam final.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt | Updated: September 13, 2020 9:39:11 pm
Dominic Thiem is set to face Alexander Zverev in the US Open final on Sunday. (Source: Reuters)

Long viewed as a pure clay-courter, Dominic Thiem has evolved into a strong competitor on hard courts, improving his winning percentage on the surface from 53 in 2017 to 76 this year. The Austrian pushed Rafael Nadal to five sets in the 2018 US Open classic, won his first Masters title last year against Roger Federer at Indian Wells and finished the season with wins over both the Swiss and Novak Djokovic at the ATP Finals. Now, the 27-year-old is in his second-straight hard court Grand Slam final, and we take a look at what’s working for him.

Better positioning

Like most clay specialists, Thiem used to play from well behind the baseline on hard courts. He still plays deep but has shifted slightly forward in recent times, often rushing in and converting chances. In the five-set quarterfinal loss to Nadal in New York two years ago, Thiem came in 31 times, winning 21 points; a success rate of 68 per cent. In January, he defeated Nadal in the Australian Open quarterfinal in four sets, where he won 26 of 33 net points (79%). During the semifinal against Daniil Medvedev, Thiem won 22 of 29 (76%) net points. The ploy doesn’t just work against baseliners. Thiem traded Tour Finals group wins with Federer in 2018 and 2019, losing the former with a net point success rate of 41% (7 of 17) and winning the latter with 78% (14 of 18). Improved positioning has resulted in better volleys and fewer unforced errors.

Faster playstyle

Speaking about his Australian Open final run this year, Thiem admitted: “I told myself, ‘If I can be in the finals in London, the ATP Finals, why not as well in a hard-court Slam?’ Since then I know that I’m also playing very well on the faster surfaces.”

Thiem carried his form onto the GreenSet Plexicushion courts at the Australian Open and has got only better on US Open’s faster Laykold surface. Thiem fought hard in Melbourne — Aussie world No. 151 Alex Bolt stretched him to five sets in the second round. The rest of his matches were at least four-set affairs, save the only straightforward three-setter fourth-round clash against Gael Monfils. At the US Open, Thiem took advantage of a more favourable draw and has only dropped one set en route to the final.

Stronger body

Early last year, Thiem split with childhood coach Gunter Bresnik and abandoned the idea of replicating his clay-court game on hard courts. The Austrian formed a new entourage which ran him ragged. Chilean Nicolas Massu would improve his ward’s positioning and style during the daily on-court session. Fitness coaches Dr Michael Reinprecht and Duglas Cordero and physio Alex Stober would conduct two off-court conditioning sessions.

A beach workout and a track workout daily improved the physicality. Thiem’s strong upper body now helps him impart both force and spin with his backhand, and opponents can no longer target his one-hander with high forehands. “I come to the net more often, I improved my volleys, my serves, my returns. As a result of that I had pretty good results in the late stages of the season,” Thiem said last year.

The shots on the hardcourt are flatter, the serves more aggressive. Compared to 2017, Thiem’s average first-serve has got both faster (108mph to 116mph) and more accurate (58.8% to 65.8%).

Statistics: TennisAbstract/ATP

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