Wednesday, March 13, 2019 - Dominic Thiem plays Ivo Karlovic in the 4th round of the BNP Paribas Open in Stadium 2 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. (Michael Cummo/BNP Paribas Open)
Dominic Thiem has never hidden his affinity for clay. He was raised on the stuff, after all; a born-and-bred dirtballer who first honed his game as a child under the Viennese eyes of Günter Bresnik, with whom he still works to this day. Eight of his 11 ATP titles have come on clay. His breakthrough at the Slams came last year on the terre battue of Roland Garros, where he reached his first major final.
The 25-year-old, however, is no one-surface wonder. He proved that last year in Flushing Meadows, playing a set of hard-court tennis so sublime that it all but defies description. Facing Rafael Nadal in his first US Open quarterfinal, Thiem bageled the Mallorcan in the opening set — only the fourth time in 282 career Grand Slam matches that Rafa had been blanked. Swinging through the court with near reckless abandon off both wings, he hit his corners, his lines, nearly every time.
Said John McEnroe, “It was the set you dream of, when everything works.”
Though Nadal, as he so often does, battled back to claim the four-hour, 49-minute classic, 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7(4), 7-6(5), one of the finest matches ever played in the borough of Queens, New York, Thiem learned that he can indeed hang with anyone on cement.
“I saw for the first time that I was able to play five hours with the best in the world,” reflected Thiem, into his second quarterfinal in three years on the hard courts of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. “It was a great experience. It gave me a lot of confidence.”
“I felt like I finally achieved some of the goals I set for myself on hard courts — moving closer to the baseline, serving better, returning better,” he added. “Even two, three months later, I still had a lot of confidence.”
Some scratched their heads when, earlier this year, Thiem — the world No. 8 — added Nicolás Massú to his coaching staff. Massú, after all, was viewed as a clay-court specialist during a 16-year pro career that saw him peak at No. 9. However, his signature moment came at the Athens Games of 2004, when the Chilean swept the singles and doubles gold on the hard courts of the Olympic Tennis Centre.
Think of Massú as a conduit between clay and concrete.
“There are many things he can bring to my game,” explained Thiem this week in Indian Wells. “He preferred clay courts, but his biggest success came on a pretty fast hard court. He knows what it means to feel at home on clay, but transfer that to good results on hard courts. That’s one of the most important things that we expect from the relationship.”
Thiem and his team arrived in the California desert nearly two weeks before his first match in order to fully acclimate himself to the conditions. Given that the courts are playing slow, and the ball is bouncing high, Thiem is in his element.
“It suits my game well,” he said.
Thiem’s next test will come in the form of a resurgent Gael Monfils, who, after falling out of the Top 40 last year, has climbed his way back to No. 19. The Frenchman is into the quarters behind wins over Argentine Leonardo Mayer, Spain’s Albert Ramos-Vinolas and Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber.
“He’s had a very good season so far,” said Thiem, who’s a perfect 4-0 against the Frenchman. “He won Rotterdam, played good in Dubai. When he’s on, I think everybody knows what he’s capable of. It’s hard to hit a winner against him. He’s so fast and he can also put a lot of pressure on you. It’s going to be a tough match.”