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Dominic Thiem – the challenger in making to Djokovic's throne?

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© Official Dominic Thiem Facebook

Dominic Thiem – the challenger in making to Djokovic's throne?

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Debarshee Mitra

02/26/2016

When Ivan Lendl, the legendary American tennis player and 8 time slam winner, saw Dominic Thiem play for the first time at the tender age of 17, he made a phone call to Adidas, insisting the German company to sign the Austrian kid on a long-term deal. Adidas duly obliged and it's fair to say Thiem has let neither Adidas nor Lendl down with his surge up the rankings, moving up to 15 this past Monday.

Only in January did Novak Djokovic swat Roger Federer and Andy Murray in succession to hoist another Australian Open trophy aloft at the Rod Laver Arena, when critics and pundits officially called it the end of the so-called “big four” of tennis, and the rise and rise of the "big one", with no upcoming competitors for the top spot. Understandably so, as Novak has been at a different level altogether, and the other three around him have fallen by the way rather too easily.

Rafael Nadal hasn't reached the semis of a major in more than 12 months now, while Murray and Federer have succumbed to the might of Djokovic only too often, especially at the big stages. Wawrinka's challenge has been sporadic, which naturally raised the question, who is going to dispose Djokovic from the top and when?

While Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Bernard Tomic, Grigor Dimitrov, Jack Sock and the likes have flirted in and around the top 20, the one player who has steadily gained momentum, without getting as much hype as his peers, is the 22 year old Austrian Dominic Thiem. The youngster is the youngest player in the top 20, add to that a deadly baseline game and an inscrutable attitude, Thiem looks to be the complete package and here to stay.

Coming from a family of tennis coaches, the diminutive Austrian took to the tennis courts like a duck to water. Humble and always ready to learn the 22 year old has risen from an ATP ranking of 350, only 3 years back, to break into the top 20 in an impressive span of only 30 months. Even the severe intestinal virus, which almost threatened his career back in 2013, couldn't keep him down.

Now with last night's win over Grigor Dimitrov in the Apaculpo Open, Thiem has eliminated a former champion yet again, just like he did with Nadal at the Argentina Open. The win also means Dominic Thiem has reached the last four of each of the past three tournaments he has participated in. The reward for this impressive run? A career high ATP ranking of 15, which could further rise depending on how he fares in the semis. So what sets the kid apart?

Style of play

Single handed backhands are a rarity in the sport, with most players opting for two hands on their weaker side, for better stability and control. High profile exceptions do exist(Yes, you Roger and Stan) but with the increasing speed and muscle in the sport, double-handed backhand is the preferred artillery players prefer to possess. Not Dominic Thiem though.

A strong wristy backhand with the unique ability to hit flat, as well as inject dizzy top spin, Thiem stands out from the crowd. Unlike most single handed backhanders, he doesn't opt for the slices on return and prefers to go through with the shot, often choosing to attack with them down the line from the ad court. Lendl noted, "His backhand-down-the-line is phenomenal. I'm sure he'll go to enter the top 10".

One step at a time some might say, but for a player with such potential, aiming anything less than a slam win would seem unfair. But to reach that goal, he would need to probably make some tweaks to his game still. For instance, he barely comes to the net, something possibly the entire present tennis generation can be criticized of. But Thiem's movement down the baseline gives him an extra edge, especially with a natural aggressive instinct. Couple that with his indefatigable energy and agility and it's easy to see why he prefers staying rooted behind the baseline.

But where does all this assiduity and rigor come from? Why a single handed backhand when almost every up and coming player uses both hands? Two words, Gunter Bresnik.

Coaching

Gunter Bresnik is an Austrian legend, not because he won slams as a player (he captained Austria in the Davis Cup though) but because of his association with Boris Becker. Legend has it that when Dominic Thiem's father joined Bresnik's academy as a coach, he asked Gunter to mentor his son and with that started the successful and still active association of Bresnik and Thiem.

It was Gunter that changed a young 12-year-old Thiem's double-handed backhand to a single-handed one, thus adding more aggression to his play from both wings.

Then comes Sepp Resnik, the man behind Thiem's almost freakish agility. Midnight runs in the jungle, lifting tree trunks, showers under waterfalls, whatever Resnik instructs Thiem follows. Here's the interesting part though, Resnik at 63 is almost thrice Thiem's age and does all the drills together with his understudy.

From climbing trees to doing push-ups with chairs against their chests, Resnik accompanies Thiem right through it all. Thanks to the unconventional drills and training regimes, Thiem's below hip strength has improved staggeringly, moving much more in tandemm which helps his on court movement. When asked about Resnik, Thiem smiled and said, "He's just a wicked guy".

Wicked is only the tip of the iceberg. Resnik does not sleep, bought his first mobile phone only three years back, and spends most of his time in the woods. No wonder Thiem also displayed his knack for the unorthodox himself, when he wished Resnik in the Futures final in Italy by breaking a racquet and yelling "Happy birthday Sepp". It's a beautiful and successful relationship. Thiem like his name is a proper team man (Theim is pronounced as Team).

The future looks bright for the Austrian, with scalps like Rafael Nadal, David Ferrer, Kevin Anderson, Gael Monfils, Nicolas Almagro and Grigor Dimitrov under his belt already, the only way is up. With a down to earth nature and the able guidance of Resnik and Bresnik, it shouldn't be long before he starts to take down the big guns in the majors. And that is where his real test shall start.

Dominic Thiem is almost on the pedestal where he and many experts believe he belongs, but now can he capitalize on this elevated stature with a sustained run towards the top or win championships? Can he be the one to challenge the crown Djokovic seems to have made his own? Can he finally be the nextgen star that the tennis world has been craving for? The signs look positive so far and he has a chane to prove it to the world when he squares up against Djokovic at the semis of French Open. Time for Dominic Thiem to match his billing.

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