One of the abiding memories of 2020 was Dominic Thiem’s tortuous progress towards his first Grand Slam title in a nerve-jangling U.S. Open final against Alexander Zverev.
It was excruciating viewing as the Austrian battled suffocating nerves and then cramp to finally deliver a long-overdue major some felt might elude him.
With that weight lifted from his shoulders, the 27-year-old now looks primed to prove he is no one-Slam wonder.
In fact, the surprise would be if the world number three did not assume the
status of the world’s best player sooner rather than later, knocking Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal off their perches rather than waiting for them to retire.
Thiem’s performance in his five-set loss to Djokovic in last year’s Australian Open final was an impressive effort but suggested he lacked the unshakeable belief that has fired the incredible careers of Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer.
Seven-time major winner Mats Wilander believes that when he clawed his way to the title at Flushing Meadows, Thiem added that final layer of mental armour.
“I think he proved to himself that even without playing his best, he could win the final of a Grand Slam,” the Swede told Reuters.
“He should have beaten Djokovic in the final last year if he hadn’t panicked and risked too much. Then he was tired at the French Open and the ATP (Finals), which I can’t believe he didn’t win.
“But he is not intimidated by (Djokovic and Nadal) any more on the big stages. He realised that ‘hang on I’m the one bullying these two around on the court, I’m deciding how things are going to work out, the racket is in my hands’.
“He might not beat them every time but he doesn’t care.”
The statistics back that up.
Vienna-borm Thiem has beaten both Nadal and Djokovic in three of their last four meetings.
Wilander, who will be offering his expert insight for Eurosport throughout the Australian Open, said Thiem was the perfect example of a player finding another level after switching to a battle-hardened coach.
In Thiem’s case it was Chilean Nicolas Massu, a former top-10 player who won two gold medals at the Athens Olympics.
With Massu in his camp, Thiem appears to have found new ways to win matches rather than simply rely on his preferred weapons.
“I was in Austria a couple of years ago and I was talking to Stefan Koubeck and he told me that as a junior Thiem knew how to do everything — drop shots, sliced backhands,” Wilander said.
“Then Gunter Bresnik worked him so hard and made his game so basic. That was necessary to give him that great foundation to be consistent with the basic qualities — the big forehand, the kick serve, trying to bully the opponent.
“But I think he got stale. Now when you see him he has got some seriously great hands. I think he has by far the most complete game for me, mixes it up more than Novak and Rafa.
“Massu has helped him be more creative when he’s not playing well, or behind. He’s way more mature.”
While Djokovic and Nadal show no signs of fading away any time soon, Wilander believes Thiem is poised for a great year.
“I think he has a good chance of being the best player in the world at the end of 2021, to be honest,” he said.