When you watch Dominic Thiem belt a backhand down the line, you are immediately struck by two things: the unnatural power he creates off it, and the unusual posture he adopts right after his swing is complete.
The Thiem backhand is not a ‘flowing’ shot like Stan Wawrinka’s or Richard Gasquet’s; it doesn’t have a majestic follow-through that makes it look like a piece of art. Instead of timing the ball sweetly and holding the arm extension pose for a few moments the way Wawrinka and Gasquet do, Thiem bludgeons it and immediately drops his hands to his sides.
He almost looks a little sheepish while he’s standing in attention, as though he feels guilty about inflicting so much violence on the ball. You might even say he looks like a child who doesn’t know his own strength, and who has just blown a hole through a wall after a particularly intense game of catch.
In a way, Thiem probably should feel guilty about hitting his backhand so hard, because an ordinary human body is just not supposed to generate that much pace with a one-hander. It’s almost unfair how much of a freak of nature Thiem is; how astonishingly athletic, abnormally powerful and alarmingly quick he is, especially on a claycourt. But then he goes out and produces a performance like he did in the Barcelona Open final against Daniil Medvedev, and you shudder at the sheer magnitude of his superiority, wondering whether there’s any limit to how high he can fly if his mind is set on it.
Thiem didn’t just blow Medvedev off the court in the final. He also looped, sliced and goaded him off it. While his seismic semi-final win over Rafael Nadal was a furious display of no-holds-barred power hitting, his defeat of Medvedev was a study in cat-and-mouse psychology, predicated as much on muscle as on manipulation.
On Sunday, I had written that Medvedev’s biggest weakness was his inability to finish points on his own terms. While most of us expected Thiem to take advantage of that, not many would’ve anticipated just how smart the Austrian would be about it. Thiem knew that Medvedev likes to extend points rather than end them, but instead of doing the reverse and shortening the points himself, he forced the Russian to do the reverse.
It is a plan that sounds simple in theory, but for a man blessed with the athletic gifts of Thiem, it must have taken immense self-control to execute.
At the start of the match, Medvedev was in his element, getting everything back in play while an increasingly frustrated Thiem struggled to put two good points together. The Russian raced to a 3-0 lead, and at that point, it seemed like Thiem was going to suffer yet another let-down immediately after registering a big victory; the last four times he had defeated Nadal or Novak Djokovic, he had failed to win the title.
Thiem still seemed to be in his ‘beast mode’, the kind that is required to take down Nadal on clay, in those first three games. He kept trying to hit through Medvedev, and kept failing to do so. But then Medvedev missed a couple of routine putaways while serving for a 4-1 lead, and a light flicked on in Thiem’s head.
He replaced his topspin drive with a biting slice, and suddenly Medvedev had no pace to work with even on his favored backhand wing. We have always known Medvedev prefers to end points with his backhand than his forehand, but Thiem showed that if the ball is kept consistently low, the Russian can’t do too much damage with his backhand either.
Mid-way through the first set there were several long and teasing backhand-to-backhand rallies, but with the roles reversed; it was Thiem, rather than Medvedev, who was trying to slow down the pace. And even when he got a ball on his forehand side, Thiem hit with loopy topspin that came dangerously close to moonballing, instead of hacking at it with all his might.
The message was clear: if Medvedev wanted to win the match, he’d have to generate his own pace in the rallies. And that realisation threw the Russian off his game so severely that he seemed utterly clueless about what to do next.
He tried approaching the net, but was made to hit too many difficult volleys. He tried pulling the trigger early in the rallies, but made too many errors. He tried hurling down big first serves, but ended up hurting his shoulder.
With Medvedev looking dazed, confused and injured at the other side of the net, it didn’t take long for Thiem to establish firm control. By the end of the first set, even the drop shots that he had been trying since Game 1 started working like a dream. And by the second set, he was showing off his full repertoire, back to his hard-hitting best but throwing in the occasional slice or drop shot to keep Medvedev constantly off-balance.
A bagel was a natural conclusion, as was a Barcelona title for Thiem. For all of his claycourt expertise, before this week he had never actually won any of the four prestigious spring claycourt tournaments in the lead-up to Roland Garros. Now he has lifted the trophy at one of them, the smallest in stature (the other three are Masters 1000s while Barcelona is a 500 event), and it seems like a matter of time before he adds the others to his collection too.
Thiem has been threatening to snatch the claycourt throne from Nadal for a while now, but this is probably the first week he has looked the part from start to finish. He showed his intelligence against Medvedev, but before that also showed his consistency against Diego Schwartzman in the second round, his defense against Jaume Munar in the third round, his patience against Guido Pella in the quarterfinal.
And against Nadal in the semi-final, aside from the sheer brute force of his groundstrokes, he showed composure in the face of pressure that can’t be described as anything other than, well, Nadal-esque. Down three break points while serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set, with the Spaniard looking like a raging bull that had just been unchained, Thiem produced some nerveless tennis to come through unscathed and put the finishing touches on a power masterclass.
We’ve known from the start that Thiem is a freak of nature. But now that he has started adding these new layers to his game, playing with brain in addition to brawn, it’s scary to imagine what will come next. Is it really fair on the rest of the field that he’s acing so many different aspects of the game?
Maybe Thiem should start apologising to his opponents too after hitting his vicious backhands, instead of just dropping his hands to his sides and looking guilty. It’s the least he can do for making everyone else look so inadequate.
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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2019 13:14:15 IST