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Indian Wells Open: Dominic Thiem’s big game now comes equipped with the small but significant details

Tennis, as any professional player will tell you, is as much about the little details as it is about the big, spectacular plays.

You can catch the attention of the fans and the experts with your jaw-dropping winners and crazy gets. But to win matches and tournaments consistently, you have to make those small adjustment steps and swing changes to adapt to the tricky situations you face on the court.

 Indian Wells Open: Dominic Thiem’s big game now comes equipped with the small but significant details

Dominic Thiem (left) and Roger Federer after the Indian Wells men's final. AP Photo

Dominic Thiem has faced his fair share of tricky situations on the court, and he hasn’t always covered himself in glory at those times. Thiem has an explosive game with tremendous power, topspin and movement, but those aren’t the only things required to succeed on quick courts — which had showed in his results. While he never ceased to amaze us with his explosive hitting on clay, his inability to take time away from his opponents on grass and hard courts had convinced many of us he’d never be anything more than a claycourt specialist.

That started changing sometime in the middle of last year. His epic US Open quarter-final against Rafael Nadal, which was followed by a title in St Petersburg and a semi-final showing at the Paris Masters, seemed to signify a shift in Thiem’s approach. The difference in his play wasn’t dramatic, but he was standing a little closer to the baseline, slicing his backhand a bit more than usual, and generating a tad more purchase out of his serve.

Is it fair to say that his win over Roger Federer in the Indian Wells final — which gave him his first ATP Masters 1000 title on any surface — is a culmination of the process that started last year? It would’ve, if it hadn’t been for the fact that Thiem’s 2019 had been a bit of a trainwreck until last week.

He had carried an abysmal 3-4 win-loss record on the year into Indian Wells. At the Australian Open he seemed to have reverted to his old style of always standing a million feet behind the baseline, which meant he needed five sets to subdue Benoit Paire in the first round (which he followed with a retirement in the second round). In Buenos Aires he lost in the semi-final to Diego Schwartzman, and in Rio he suffered a listless opening round defeat to Laslo Djere.

In all of these defeats, Thiem’s tennis looked neither here nor there; he wasn’t consistent enough with his offensive shots on clay, and he wasn’t attacking enough on hardcourt. He looked a little lost on the court, so his decision to start working with a new coach — Nicolas Massu — in February couldn’t have come at a better time.

This may sound like jumping the gun, but based on several past instances you expect a tennis player’s results to see immediate improvement after hiring a new coach. And for Thiem, the addition of a new pair of eyes had the potential to be doubly impactful, considering the fact that he was already in the midst of an evolutionary change.

This week at Indian Wells, Thiem’s play looked even more different than how it did in late 2018, and that could well be due to the Massu effect. That said, the changes were so subtle that you had to be watching ultra-slow-motion replays of his matches with a microscope to detect them.

Thiem already had the power and movement to do well on a court that was quicker than clay. The fact that he had earlier tasted success against Federer on grass was a strong indication of what seemed logical in theory — that his deep, topspin-heavy shots could push Federer behind the baseline on any surface, thus nullifying the legend’s biggest strengths.

The question always was whether Thiem could make those borderline indiscernible adjustments needed to defeat a Federer in good form, on a court where he had won five titles before. The answer is starkly evident now.

Thiem has frequently had trouble hitting defensive returns off his backhand, so he countered the problem by trying to slow down the court and eliminating the need to hit defensive backhand returns altogether. Whenever he anticipated a serve to his backhand, he adopted a return stance 10 feet behind the baseline so that he could hit the ball back deep and with pace, irrespective of the quality of the serve.

Yes, that did allow Federer the opportunity to knock off volley winners into the vast acres of space left open. But Thiem’s decision to stand back paid off in perhaps the biggest turning point of the match.

When presented with a break point at 2-1 in the second set, Thiem adjusted his racquet swing and snapped his wrist to crunch a sharply-angled backhand return. The net-rushing Federer had no chance of touching it, and the only break of the set was Thiem’s.

With just one swing of his racquet, the Austrian had halted Federer’s momentum and turned the match on its head.

The ‘stand next to the linesmen’ strategy was only with respect to the return of serve though; in a majority of the baseline rallies, Thiem actually hit his backhand earlier than normal. Against both Raonic in the semi-final and Federer in the final, Thiem didn’t go for as many outright backhand winners from the back of the court as he usually does. Instead, he took a leaf out of the Federer playbook and focused on shortening his backswing and taking time away from his opponent.

There was one point in the third set that showed just how crucial this change was. Thiem was serving at 3-4, and had gone 0-30 down on the back of two forehand errors. On the subsequent point Federer seemed to be in full control of the rally, and he belted a mid-court forehand into Thiem’s backhand corner. But instead of slicing the ball back, Thiem stood his ground and reflexed a topspin backhand over the net.

Federer pulled his next forehand wide, and Thiem had avoided the prospect of going three break points down. At that time it had seemed like a characteristic Federer error that had allowed his opponent to get off the hook. But on watching the replay you realised that Federer was expecting a floated reply from Thiem, and the flat backhand threw him off.

By the end of the match, Thiem’s firepower proved too strong for even Federer to counter. He got more violent with each passing game, and as he struck one thunderous forehand winner after another to close out the match you felt sorry for both Federer and the ball.

In effect, Thiem combined his claycourt instincts with his newfound hardcourt prowess to win the biggest title of his career. And anybody who’s watched his development over the last few years would attest that this was both inevitable and a long time coming.

Thiem can be every bit as intimidating a physical specimen as Rafael Nadal or Stan Wawrinka. He has the big game to match theirs, and the eye-popping winners to elicit comparably awed reactions from the crowd. What he lacked in the early part of his career was the willingness and ability to make the small changes needed for succeed outside clay, but now he seems to be on the road to correct that final flaw too.

Is it a sign of things to come that Thiem’s first Masters has come on hardcourt rather than his beloved clay? I wouldn’t go that far, but what I can say is that going forward, it would be unwise to automatically write off his chances on non-clay surfaces.

It’s the little things that he’s doing well now, and that can make a world of difference.

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Updated Date: Mar 18, 2019 17:39:53 IST

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