If one were to ask, behind Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who amongst the ATP’s leading lights had enjoyed the best 2019 the obvious answer would be Daniil Medvedev. The Russian has, after all, climbed from world #16 to inside the top four, winning two Masters titles and making the US Open final during a superb spell in which he reached six consecutive finals. But a convincing case might also be made for French Open finalist Dominic Thiem.
Granted, the Austrian has not enjoyed nearly so meteoric a rise. Indeed, having begun the year ranked eight places above Medvedev, he now finds himself ranked one place lower. But the season is not yet over and the Russian’s 700 point lead, whilst substantial, is not insurmountable, particularly as he finds himself staring down the barrel of elimination in London after losing his first two matches. Thiem, meanwhile, has established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the hard courts, winning three of his five titles in 2019 on that surface.
The first and most important of those came at the Indian Wells Masters. On the gritty, high-bouncing courts in the Californian desert, Thiem looked very much at home, using his speed around the court to stay alive in points when under severe pressure and his thunderous power to finish off opponents when he was in the ascendancy in the rallies. Ultimately, not even the great Roger Federer could withstand him, as the Austrian downed the five-time champion in the final in a three-set thriller.
But perhaps more significant than his victory in Indian Wells were his twin triumphs in Beijing and Vienna. The hard courts in Indian Wells are amongst the slowest on the tour, so slow in fact that they once made the big-serving Ivo Karlovic remark that he preferred to play on the European clay. The same cannot be said of the courts in China and Vienna. With those wins, Thiem proved beyond dispute that he was a clay-court specialist no more.
And he has emphasised that point spectacularly in his opening two matches in London. Drawn into a Bjorn Borg group featuring the two best indoor players of the past decade in Djokovic and Federer, who have won 11 ATP Finals titles between them, third place seemed like the best result the Austrian could hope for, despite his improvements on hard courts. Instead, he began his campaign by dispatching Federer in straight-sets, 7-5 7-5, with the Swiss simply unable to impose himself against Thiem’s power.
If that opening victory was impressive, his 6-7 6-3 7-6 win over Djokovic, who has four times been crowned champion at the O2 Arena in London, was better still. The Serbian played some of his best tennis, time and again defying Thiem with his elastic defence and unrivalled accuracy off the ground. But, despite twice surrendering a break lead in the third set and falling 1-4 behind in the deciding tiebreak, Thiem kept coming and ultimately it was Djokovic, that most resilient of players, who gave way.
On the back of those two victories, Thiem has secured his place atop the group, guaranteeing himself a place in the semifinals. Only the already eliminated Matteo Berrettini now stands between him and an undefeated run through the round robin. Such has been the level of his play so far in London, it is hard to imagine any of the four players in the Andre Agassi group relishing facing Thiem in the last four. Indeed, he must surely now be accounted the favourite to win the title.
It is thus hard to escape the feeling that this has been a breakthrough year for Thiem, although that breakthrough has been somewhat obscured by the more dramatic rises of his younger rivals, most notably Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who have both broken into the top ten for the first-time. Indeed, Thiem has spent much of his career in the shadow of both the all-time greats Federer, Nadal and Djokovic and the young guns such as Zverev, Medvedev and Tsitsipas.
He is certainly not a member of either generation. Instead, his closest peers are surely the likes of Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov, although the trajectory of his career seems to bear little resemblance to theirs. But it seems unlikely that Thiem is concerned about that. Make no mistake, there is still plenty of room for improvement from the Austrian, particularly at the Majors, where he won just seven matches this year, six of which came at Roland Garros.
But Thiem looks to be in good position to make a sharp improvement on that record in 2020. Indeed, whilst the Australian Open has so far been an unhappy hunting ground for Thiem, he looks to have a real chance of challenging for the title at Melbourne Park next January. Thiem has long found himself adrift between two generations. But before long, he could be out on his own in an altogether different way.
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