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Sunday, April 05, 2020

Thiem: The 90s kid with boy-band looks who can upstage the aging rock stars

2020 might finally see a new Slam champ and the Austrian with dyed blonde hair could be the one to end tennis' Big 3 monopoly.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt | Updated: February 4, 2020 5:30:11 pm
Dominic Thiem reacts during the Australian Open 2020 final (Twitter/ATPTour)

“Thiem’s hair gets uglier and uglier right?! It definitely doesn’t deserve a trophy picture.”
“What is Thiem’s hair, who said this was a good idea?”
“So Thiem will win his first GS with that awful paint in his hair.”
“Thiem should’ve been kicked out of the AusOpen for the hair alone.”
“I just have a hard time believing that could ever be slam-winning hair.”

The last one is from a high-profile tennis journalist, part of several tweets that made the rounds as Dominic Thiem took the court in Melbourne. With the ends of his dark brown hair dyed blonde, many saw it as an inadvertent tribute to 90s boy band NSYNC.

I don’t tweet often. But I had a draft ready in case Thiem beat Novak Djokovic on Sunday, with a photo of the said frosted tips in all its glory and the caption: “The 90s strike back!”

Thiem, born in 1993, is a man out of his time. Take fellow top prospect Stefanos Tsitsipas for example. Tsitsipas created a YouTube channel when he was 13. And if your tennis fandom is limited to the Big 3, you would mistake the Greek for a professional YouTuber (Yes, that is a thing).

Tsitsipas, who makes the Gen Z cut thanks to his 1998 birthdate, has a selfie stick handly, regularly uploading vlogs and behind the scenes. He knows what thumbnails and captions will woo his 171k (and growing) fans. Less than a week after his Australian Open exit in the third round, he was “back home in Monaco”, seated in a gaming chair, going on about the ‘6k, 24fps, 10-bit footage’ his new camera shoots.

“I’ve spent so much money for all this gear… But I don’t make money out of Instagram,” he explains later in the video. “I get that it’s a hobby. But I believe I deserve a little bit of that” — Tsitsipas makes the universal symbol for money — “a little bit of that… cash. I’m not doing it for the money but, why not.”

Yes, that’s your sixth best tennis player on the planet asking for some revenue off Instagram.

Thiem too has a YouTube channel. And after a promising start in 2018, he seems to have already given up on it. The 20 videos, lately all highlight packages and reposts, catering to a polite 30k subscribers.

Let’s talk more videos. Before Australian Open, ATP uploaded a cool vignette of Thiem training as part of their ‘Road to 2020’ series. Now, when training videos of tennis players like Alexander Zverev, Tsitsipas surface, it’s mostly on-court shot training. And if they’re feeling particularly frisky, you might get a look at their gym sets/reps routine.

The ATP video featuring Thiem had the Austrian running on the Miami beach on a gloomy morning. Sprinting uphill, simulating strokes, dragging weight across the sand, all the while his fitness trainer Duglas Cordero spurring him on. He chugs a Red Bull, and after a brief on-court session, we move to a running track at a stadium for what his team calls “gladiator training” — a taxing, interval bodyweight workout to simulate short bursts of intensity. The laser beams, live heartrate monitoring and the orchestral score ATP chose are a little out of place. But put any generic ‘Survivor’ ripoff rock song and it could easily be a training montage plucked straight out of a film.

The gruelling pre-season training help Thiem toil for more than 22 hours on the Melbourne Park hardcourts. But he couldn’t finish the job. For the third time, Thiem fell one step short of becoming the first man born in the 90s to win a Grand Slam.

Now, Team Thiem can find positives (and make excuses) from his run. En route to the final, Thiem took on three top 10 players, including a win over then-world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinal.

Djokovic’s path was objectively easier, the biggest obstacle ‘a less than 100%’ Roger Federer in the semifinal.

Thiem’s struggle started in the second round where Aussie world No. 151 Alex Bolt stretched him to five sets. The rest of his matches were at least four-set affairs, save the only straightforward three-setter fourth-round clash against Gael Monfils. Er, as straightforward as any match against Monfils could be.

Also, what’s up with the Australian Open holding men’s semifinals on different days (aka why did Djokovic get an extra day’s rest)?

Well, champions get the draws they get because they’re champions. Djokovic et al had to overcome unfavourable draws to reach the positions they’re in. And if Federer, who marched to the semifinals without facing a seeded player, would have gone on to win the event, how many would’ve complained?

And while there’s no honest answer to why Australian Open’s scheduling is such a mess while other Slams even the playing field a bit more, it was Djokovic who was visibly struggling during the four-hour final. With a 2-1 lead, Thiem was raring to close out the match.

There are tangible positives to be taken from Thiem’s string of performances.

It was believed that Thiem’s exploits will be limited to the red soil, like the clay-court specialists Thomas Muster, Gustavo Kuerten, Sergi Bruguera, Albert Costa and Gaston Gaudio who ruled the bastion in the 90s. His win rate on hardcourts, however, has climbed from 51% in 2017 to 71% in 2019. His only Masters title came last year on the hard courts of Indian Wells, where he defeated five-time champion and nine-time finalist Federer.

The shots on the hardcourt are flatter, the serves more aggressive. “I come to the net more often, I improved my volleys, my serves, my returns. I’m happy with that and as a result of that I had pretty good results in the late stages of the season,” Thiem broke it down last year.

Also, he has regularly beaten the top dogs of the Tour. After Sunday’s final, he’s still 3-2 against Djokovic in the last five meetings, with a hardcourt win at the ATP Finals. He has two wins over Nadal on clay. And his head-to-head against Federer is 5-2, and he has defeated the 20-time Grand Slam champion on every surface, including indoor and outdoor hard courts.

Which explains why he wants to win his first Grand Slam while the top three, who share 56 between them, are around.

“These guys brought tennis to a complete new level. They also brought me probably to a much better level,” Thiem said after the Australian Open final. “It was easier for sure in a different era to win big titles, that’s 100 per cent.”

(A man out of his time.)

“But I’m happy I can compete with these guys on the best level. I really also hope that I win my maiden Slam when they’re still around, because it just counts more.”

The shot selection and point construction have let him down. He has also wilted under pressure. But Thiem is also getting closer each time. He has now nearly pushed twelve-time Nadal out of his home at Roland Garros twice, and almost beat Djokovic (who had 7 titles in Melbourne before Sunday). With his luck, he might just end up facing Federer in a Wimbledon final soon.

But to paraphrase the immortal words of the Backstreet Boys, ‘Thiem Wants It That Way.’

True 90s kid too will be pulling for Thiem to hold aloft a Slam title this year. Frosted tips and all.

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