Dominic Thiem smiles as he reflects on the past 12 months, the greatest of his career, and says: “I reached the biggest goal I ever had in my sporting life so that was a great, great achievement.” On a Zoom call from across the world in Adelaide, Thiem was recalling a year during which he brushed aside the strangeness of competing in a pandemic to win his first grand slam at the US Open in a five-set psychodrama against Alexander Zverev.
In the end he finished the year ranked third, which does not actually flatter his achievements. He earned the second highest number of ranking points in 2020, behind only Novak Djokovic, and his grand slam tournament results – a title, a final and a quarter-final – outclassed Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Through it all, he has finally learned exactly how life changes when you achieve the goal of your life: not that much.
“It definitely lets me look a little calmer on my career, especially from a distance,” says Thiem. “But in the matches, in the tournaments which I play now, it changes nothing. I experienced it already in the ATP finals where I was, like, probably tighter than in any other tournament before. So the grand slam didn’t change anything.”
As Thiem returns to Melbourne, the next challenge will be to win a grand slam by toppling one of Nadal and Djokovic en route. He will probably have the events of a year ago deep in the back of his mind, when he reached his first slam final on hard courts with wins against Nadal and Zverev. In the championship match he had Djokovic on the ropes, leading by two sets to one, but could not finish him off. He lost in five sets and his record in grand slam finals fell to 0-3.
At the time, Thiem seemed to take it in his stride with the conviction that he would soon succeed, but these days he is more honest about how he really felt. It was simply one of the most crushing losses of his career. In the long months of lockdown that followed shortly after, his doubts devoured him.
“I was at home, not going out anywhere and had a lot of time to think and to reflect, not only on the Australian Open final but on my whole career, and many doubts were coming up: if I ever get that chance again, if I ever will get that close again in the Australian Open final, and that was not easy,” he says.
While the Australian Open defeat became one of the driving forces behind Thiem’s success, the event underlined much more about his character. Thiem arrived in Melbourne having acquired the former world No 1 Thomas Muster, then the only Austrian to win a grand slam title, as a coach alongside Nicolás Massú. After his second-round match, Thiem had seen enough and Muster was jettisoned. “After that match I told my parents and my team that, well, I want to split up. It’s the best for this tournament and also the best for the coming year and career. But it was not an easy decision.”
It echoed his decision from a year earlier when he split from his childhood coach Günther Bresnik. Bresnik appeared to control much of Thiem’s career and so Thiem’s decision to break away ended in a messy divorce. With Massú, his coach since February 2019, he has more freedom and they have revitalised his game by shortening his forehand swing, moving closer to the baseline and making his backhand slice a focal point against the giants across the net. “I had to come out of my comfort zone,” he says.
A less discussed aspect of an individual sport such as tennis is that its players are employers and not beholden to the whims of a manager or a club. Success is not only determined by forehands and backhands but all the individual decisions made by a player. “When I was younger, it was really difficult somehow to take good decisions on the court, off the court,” he says. “To develop as a player, to develop as a character. Because, tennis is brutal. Week in, week out, you have to compete. You have to travel. Somehow there is no space to develop your character or anything. That just comes with the years, with the experience and right now I’m pretty happy how I handle the things.”
An example is reflected in his upbringing. Thiem’s parents, Wolfgang and Karin, were in their early 20s when he was born and facilitating a career in such an expensive sport required sacrifices, including his grandmother who sold her apartment to fund his training. He says it took a while for him to truly appreciate the collective effort required for him to be successful.
“I realised when I was like, probably 21, 22. Because, as I said before, it takes a while as a tennis player to develop your character because all your life is only about practising and matches. It probably takes a little bit longer than with a normal teenager. I think I was growing up a little later, at 21, 22. But at that age, I realised what an unbelievable effort all my family did for me.”
Over time, Thiem has grown from a timid introvert to a prominent public figure who speaks more freely and carries himself with a little more of an edge. It was as evident in 2019, when he was outraged at being moved out of a press conference in favour of Serena Williams, as it was last year when his comments about giving money to lower-ranked players sparked a chorus of criticism. Even though he “is naturally not the guy who talks a lot”, now he does talk.
“Now, of course, especially in Austria everything I say, what I do, is public straight away. That’s part of it. I have to think before I talk. If I talk my mind, if I thought well about it before and it comes out negative or something, I have to live with it. Because I don’t want to fake myself or anything.”
Although he is often grouped with the younger crop of developing players, Thiem enters the Australian Open aged 27 and in his prime. “I had really great years. I had a way better career than I could have ever expected. But I also think that I still have great remaining years, maybe five, six, seven amazing years to come. I hope so,” he says. Then he smiles again. “But I don’t think I’m still going to be still playing, like Roger, when I’m 39.”