Thiem’s fairytale return

October 30, 2022

After two years away, the Austrian is setting himself up as a major contender, and crowd favorite, in 2023

Dominic Thiem
Dominic Thiem

It took about an hour for the roars for Dominic Thiem to really get going in Vienna’s Stadthalle last Tuesday. The Austrian had been soundly beaten, 6-2, by Tommy Paul in the first set of their opening-round match. But now Thiem was digging in for the long haul, and the crowd could sense it.

He began to take more time between points, and use his serve more thoughtfully. He signaled his determination with small but regular fist-pumps. He saved break points and refused to fall behind early in the set. He had the look of a man dead set on winning a match, no matter how long it took, or how unlikely it seemed. Thiem’s home-country fans, who hadn’t seen him here in two years, backed him as loudly as they could. For the next two sets, Vienna sounded like New York.

Welcome to Dominic Thiem 2.0. For most of his 20s, he was an heir apparent to the Big Three. He was a two-time runner-up to Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, and the first player of his generation to win a major, at the pandemic-wracked 2020 US Open. That was just two years ago, but it seems like a lifetime in Thiem’s career. First he had letdown after that breakthrough Slam title. Then he had a wrist injury and a finger injury. Then he had Covid. He went 426 days without winning a match, a run of futility that finally ended in July. While he was gone, not one but two younger players-Daniil Medvedev and Carlos Alcaraz-came along to win the US Open and reach No. 1.

It’s obviously unfortunate that a great player lost two years of his career. But now Thiem has a chance to experience the upside, because everyone loves a comeback story. He was always going to be the crowd favorite in Vienna, but the same was true earlier this month when he made the semi-finals in Gijon and Antwerp. When Thiem was in his mid-20s and deep in the shadows of the Big Three, many of us took his game for granted: The leaping forehand, the lethally-whipped one-handed backhand, the sudden, uncontrollable outbursts in German. Fans are happy to see all of that again, and happy that he didn’t fade out of the game early, which seemed possible just a few months ago. The Thiem story has another, more sympathetic, more relatable layer to it now.

Speaking of comebacks, Thiem needed all of the calm determination, and déjà vu shotmaking, he could muster to overcome Paul on Tuesday. When the American fired an ace to go up 5-2 in the third set, Thiem hung his head as he walked to the sideline; all seemed lost. But the crowd wouldn’t let him give in. A game later, Thiem took a hard crosscourt backhand from Paul and reflexed one of his signature one-handers up the line for a spectacular winner. It brought back old times, and brought the fans to their feet.

But he wasn’t out of the woods yet. Twenty minutes later, Thiem faced two match points at 4-6 in the deciding tiebreaker. This time he got some welcome help from Paul, who missed an easy backhand long and rushed an ugly forehand into the middle of the net to set Thiem up with match point. When Paul’s next return landed wide, Thiem fell to the court as if he had won the US Open all over again. We can forgive him the euphoria; it’s been a long road back.

Thiem will find himself up against the top-seeded Medvedev on Thursday. That’s an encounter to look forward to, and so is Thiem’s 2023 season. The men’s game has a new No. 1 in Alcaraz, and seemingly a young generation ready to follow him to the top. Thiem is 29, but there’s no reason he can’t be part of that new wave.

He still has the shots and the hops, and this time he’ll have the fans in a way he never did before. –

Thiem’s fairytale return