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St Petersburg Open 2018: Dominic Thiem's hardcourt success raises hopes of consistency outside clay surfaces

“Brainless ball-basher”.

As far as derogatory nicknames go, that might be one of the most flattering ones. Don’t get me wrong; if I had to have any nickname, I’d rather it not be a derogatory one.

But it’s almost inevitable for world-class athletes to get saddled with such monikers, given the tendency of sports fans to be both impatient and unempathetic. So anything that’s even remotely flattering could well be considered a blessing.

 St Petersburg Open 2018: Dominic Thiems hardcourt success raises hopes of consistency outside clay surfaces

Dominic Thiem defeated Martin Klizan in straight sets on Sunday to win St Petersburg Open. AFP

What’s wrong in being a brainless ball-basher? As Maria Sharapova showed at Wimbledon 2004, Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 US Open, and more recently Jelena Ostapenko at Roland Garros 2017, blasting the cover off the ball is a good enough strategy to win Grand Slams.

Dominic Thiem has been accused of being a ball-basher, and nothing much else, ever since one can remember. The ‘brainless’ tag came a little later, after we saw how eager he was to play every week of the year irrespective of where his game was heading.

Thiem was all power and all muscle, but zero strategy and foresight.

But put those things together — along with fabulous court coverage and endless stamina — and you can firmly entrench yourself in the top 10. Thiem is already one of the best players in the world by any metric, and that’s not something to sneeze at.

He’s also, to many people’s minds, the heir apparent to Rafael Nadal on clay. It’s not just that he has reached two semi-finals and one final at Roland Garros, it’s also the fact that he has defeated Nadal on clay three times in the last three years, and is the only player in the world to have defeated him at all in the last two.

The prevailing thought is that if Thiem keeps being a ball-basher, he will win the French Open someday. His groundstrokes have too much power and too much top-spin for anyone but Nadal to consistently counter them; he doesn’t need to change much to become a claycourt great.

But will that be enough for a player of his gifts? Should he be happy with a fantastic record on clay and a mediocre record everywhere else?

The last couple of months have given us a bit of insight into how much Thiem cares about success on surfaces other than clay. At the US Open, he registered his maiden Slam quarter-final appearance outside Roland Garros, and then threw everything humanly possible at Nadal before bowing out in a thrilling 2 am finish. And this week in St Petersburg, he calmly outplayed a string of decent opponents to lift his first hardcourt title of the year — and only second of his career.

On the surface, it doesn’t look like Thiem is doing a whole lot different on hardcourts lately. The man himself certainly hasn’t talked about any deliberate changes he has made. After defeating Kevin Anderson in the US Open fourth round, Thiem commented on how playing from further back than usual had helped him — like he wasn’t standing far back enough already.

“It (Louis Armstrong) is a huge court. I could go very far back like I do on clay usually… I played him three years ago on Court 17, which didn’t allow me to go that far back. It helped me a lot. I also did the same in Madrid. It worked out, so I thought why not on hardcourt? It worked out (here too).”

But Thiem did stand a little closer to the baseline in his very next match, against Nadal. This writer was in the stands during that barn-burner of an epic, and it was clear that the Austrian was taking more than his usual share of balls on the rise in order to take time away from Nadal.

The backswing wasn’t much shorter; he still took huge cuts at everything, including half volleys. But Thiem is young enough, and also athletic enough, to make a seemingly counterintuitive ploy like that work. If you have the ability to bring all of your considerable firepower to bear on the ball while standing just a couple of feet from the baseline, then why wouldn’t you do that?

Sure, that kind of kamikaze style can lead to quite a few wild errors too, and Thiem sent a considerable number of balls sailing into the Arthur Ashe crowd during that match. But there were just as many spectacular winners on the day — winners that seemed to shake the very foundations of the cavernous stadium.

It was a performance that traversed all the extremes of tennis shot-making, and it was the first time he had put on such an extraordinary display on a surface other than clay.

The Austrian still fell memorably short though, and for any other player, the defeat might have been soul-crushing. But Thiem is not just any other player; he has, through his apparent brainlessness, learned to put disappointments behind him and get back to the grind in no time.

So there he was in St Petersburg a week later (after playing two Davis Cup matches on the weekend to boot), playing his trademark, a both-feet-in-the-air-on-every-shot brand of tennis again. Only this time, there was another subtle change; he was now using the backhand slice a lot more than he used to.

Now Thiem doesn’t have a great slice. Players with single-handed backhands tend to be good at that shot, but Thiem has possibly the worst slice in the top 100. That didn’t stop him from bringing it out every now and then last week, to change the tempo of the rally. And surprisingly, it paid rich dividends.

St Petersburg is no Melbourne or New York, and Thiem still has a long way to go before he can be counted among the top contenders at a hardcourt Slam. He still spends a little too much energy from point to point, match to match and week to week, and he still doesn’t have a viable alternative gameplan that he can use when things aren’t going his way.

But if the last two months have taught us anything, it is that he is willing to improve, and has the ability to improve. His bruising tennis can theoretically translate well to any surface; now, it’s a matter of how adaptable he is to small changes, and how much he trusts his game to step into the court when required.

“I like the hard court,” Thiem had said ahead of the quarter-final match against Nadal. “I don’t really like to hear when somebody considers me a claycourt specialist, I don’t consider myself this way.”

If he can give us more matches like that US Open quarter-final, and win more titles with composed tennis like he did in St Petersburg, nobody will consider him ‘this way’ for much longer.

Thiem is all set to become a major threat on hardcourts; it seems a matter of when, not if. We can call him a brainless ball-basher all we want, but that won’t change the fact that he’s a certified champion already, and may well be destined for an all-court greatness.

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Updated Date: Sep 24, 2018 13:26:59 IST