On Sunday, Novak Djokovic came from two sets to one down to break Dominic Thiem’s heart as the Serbian captured his eighth Australian Open title in the glittering finale.
While the headlines belonged to Djokovic and his indefatigable nature, the relentlessness of his performance leading to many speculating that he will end his career as the greatest tennis player of all time, the cameras were turned away from Thiem, which is surely the point.
Can Dominic Thiem ever step into the limelight as a winner, or is he destined to miss out on the sport’s top prizes, the Grand Slam victories which so far elude him?
No-one except Rafael Nadal, world number one Djokovic and Roger Federer have won a Grand Slam title in the last three seasons, and while many are speculating that this year will be the year that run ends, they are doing so when talking about the emergence of younger talents such as Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas who at 23, 22 and 21 respectively, are an exciting trio of youthful protégés waiting to take over from the old guard.
Those three players have all made strides, with Medvedev making the U.S, Open Final in 2019, Zverev proving his pedigree in a narrow defeat to Thiem just last week in the Australian Open semi-final and Tsitsipas being crowned ATP Final champion in December.
It is conceivable that when Thiem has finally shaken off the old guard of multiple champions, legends in their own lifetime, he has to contend with players who are at his level yet have the benefits of youth on him.
It is a cruel possibility that Thiem is the man caught between both the two eras that will define modern tennis.
Thiem will be 27 in September, a few short weeks after the close of this season. His Grand Slam record at the final two events of the season, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open is less than spectacular, with his last two appearances in SW19 and his last showing at Flushing Meadow ending in the 1st Round. Can we expect him to go from comparative zero to title-winning hero in either of those Grand Slams? It seems unlikely. Then we must look to his preferred surface of clay, and Roland Garros, the next stop on the tour.
If Thiem is to triumph in France and capture his maiden Grand Slam on the clay of Philippe Chatrier Court, then he will doubtless have to make it past Rafael Nadal. While that exact victory belonged to the Austrian a fortnight ago in the Australian Open quarter-final that saw Nadal lose his world number one ranking to Thiem’s eventual conqueror, Novak Djokovic, it didn’t come on clay.
Nadal is the king of the surface, mastering the strokes that Thiem loves to make, the superpowered mirror image of the Austrian, and while the Spaniard’s body holds together it is hard to see Thiem getting the better of him.
One might therefore conclude that this season will see Thiem again fall short of that elusive Grand Slam. He might reach two finals but have nothing to show for it. He’ll then go into next season one year older and not that much more experienced.
Dominic Thiem turned pro nine years ago and has won almost $24 million from playing tennis to an incredible standard. Yet his 16 singles titles will mean little to the Austrian if his career ends with a zero in his Grand Slam winning column.
Thiem, the eternal bridesmaid will never shake off his nearly-man reputation until he steps out of the garish outfit the runner-up is cast in and is bathed in the white light of flashbulbs that only pop when you lift a Grand Slam trophy.