China Open 2019: Dominic Thiem finally sheds his 'clay-courter' image with latest hard-court triumph in Beijing

  • Dominic Thiem has left tennis watchers in little doubt of his clay-court prowess.

  • The biggest change Thiem has made this year was to bring on clay-court specialist coach Nicolas Massu.

  • Long known for his strong mental game, Thiem has been able to rein in his unforced errors at crucial moments, construct his points even more carefully.

Long touted as the Prince of Clay, the NextGen’s successor to Rafael Nadal, and more, Dominic Thiem has left tennis watchers in little doubt of his clay-court prowess. That said, it appears as though 2019 has been all about proving, for the young Austrian, that he is no slouch on every other surface, either.

2019, all aside, has been quite the year for Thiem on the surface; he won his first Masters title this year - and on hard courts. Thiem’s performance to win Indian Wells this year - beating Roger Federer for the title, was an inspired performance from a player who, only earlier this year, had complained that the ATP had scheduled far too many hard court tournaments on the calendar.

 China Open 2019: Dominic Thiem finally sheds his clay-courter image with latest hard-court triumph in Beijing

Dominic Thiem after winning the China Open title. Getty images

This year, Thiem has won two titles on clay - one each at an ATP 500 - and an ATP 250 tournament - at home in Kitzbuhel - and two on Hard Courts, at a decidedly higher level - a Masters at Indian Wells, and an ATP500 in China yesterday. His move to the final last week earned him a spot at the coveted year-end ATP Finals in London, capping off and simultaneously proving the consistency of a season that Thiem will definitely want to remember.

Interestingly, perhaps the biggest change Thiem has made this year was to bring on clay-court specialist coach Nicolas Massu to replace his longtime coach, Gunter Bresnik; the addition of Massu coming only a month prior to Indian Wells.

And for Thiem, the past few years have been nothing if not showing he can combat the feared - and in fact, still ruling old guard. Having already beaten Rafael Nadal on clay, 2019 for Thiem has felt like a hard-court breakthrough, particularly his Indian Wells title.

But for someone as adept at the slowest surface as is Dominic Thiem, adapting his game to the hard-court is, pardon the pun, a different ball game. Not particularly loath to come up to the net quite often, this year Thiem has been employing the tactic more often than not, and in his final against Stefanos Tsitsipas, won 17 of 25 points at the net.

Thiem’s new coach, Nicolas Massú - may be known for his clay-court prowess, as is his protege - but another thing Massu was known for is the ability to turn around difficult matches - something Thiem has done on a number of occasions this year, perhaps most notably against Novak Djokovic at the French Open; having come on to his team ahead of Indian Wells, where Thiem ended up taking on and beating a veteran and five-time champion there, the coaching has quite clearly stood Thiem in excellent stead.

This year, and particularly in Beijing, Thiem has been volleying like a champion, frequently using the court more and more, and most importantly, the Austrian plays a complex game.

He has long been considered one of the mentally stronger players on court, but after a few less-than-ideal results this year, Thiem has had a knockout performance in terms of mental tenacity, too.

The 26-year-old won his title on the back of not one, but two clutch games, both of which could have gone either way in terms of their results. Down a set and a break to Karen Khachanov in the semi-final, Thiem battled back to take a match that looked to be all but the Russian’s for the taking.

The China Open, given its playing field this year, was almost a NextGen display; the field included, apart from the 26 year old, and thus barely-next-gen Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas, 21, Karen Khachanov, 23, 21 year-old Andrey Rublev, among others.

Thiem has already proven, over the last few years, that he can take on the old guard - or as The Who put it, same as the new guard, and the younger NextGen - of whom he was, not so long ago, a part.

Long known for his strong mental game, Thiem has been able to rein in his unforced errors at crucial moments, construct his points even more carefully - and this year, particularly in the semi-finals and finals at Beijing, that has been especially crucial given the high level of tennis from both his opponents.

Fending off crucial break points from Tsitsipas - and restricting his own unforced error count, Thiem has been able to dig deep and show just the level of energy he is able to bring to the quicker courts, to his (if only marginally) younger, quicker opponents, many of whom are considered better on faster surfaces. Khachanov in particular is a hard court specialist, with all four of his titles, including the 2018 Paris Masters, coming on that surface. It is not that Thiem has had it easy in terms of his draws, or even his opponents, proving just how good he has been, and how hard he has had to fight for his wins this year.

Many might have argued that Thiem entered the Top 10 on the basis of his clay court results. But for the 26-year-old, who is currently comfortably at World No. 5, the work to sustain that ranking has hardly been restricted to them, as his results prove.

Only last year, in August 2018, Thiem had ended a two-year hard-court final drought to make the finals at the ATP 250 St. Petersburg tournament, where he defeated Martin Klizan in straight sets for the title. This year, the player dubbed by Roland Garros themselves as Rafael Nadal’s “heir to the throne” has broken his clay mould, and most importantly, perhaps, proving to himself that he is not a one-surface wonder.

The past year has been perhaps a baptism of fire for Thiem and hard courts - but it is a challenge that the Austrian has, ahead of the year-end ATP Finals, proven that he is more than capable of.

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Updated Date: Oct 08, 2019 13:36:14 IST