Dominic Thiem's loss to Rafael Nadal in 2019 made him the only player apart from Robin Soderling (2009-10) to make multiple Roland Garros finals without winning the title.
A few months later, with his five-set defeat to defending champion Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final, Dominic Thiem joined Tony Roche as the only players in the Open Era to make three Slam finals without winning one. (Ivan Lendl and Andy Murray lost their first four Major finals before making their breakthrough).
But Thiem has age on his side, and has now made a significant run at a Major outside clay too. Many believe Thiem is the most likely player to end the longest wait (5.5 years) in the Open Era for a new Grand Slam champion - and the man himself feels he is up to the task.
Novak Djokovic noted the evolution of Dominic Thiem's overall game, particularly the danger posed by the Austrian's top-spin forehand, after their pulsating Australian Open match.
“If you don’t counterattack that topspin in the right way, he’s throwing you off the court more and more," the Serb explained. "It’s tough to get out of that situation. You need to think how to go first and not be in the defensive position from the beginning of the point. I can see that I have the potential to play with him, but his consistency is really on another level. This is a goal to reach and a way to improve."
Since Marin Cilic lifted the 2014 US Open title, only three other players apart from Thiem (Milos Raonic - 2016 Wimbledon, Kevin Anderson - 2017 US Open and Daniil Medvedev - 2019 US Open) have reached a Major final. Of the said group, only Thiem and Anderson have played multiple Grand Slam finals without winning one.
Is Dominic Thiem primed to storm Rafael Nadal's Roland Garros bastion?
Dominic Thiem is a fine player on the red dirt. The Austrian has won 10 of his 16 career singles titles on clay.
Apart from Novak Djokovic (7), Dominic Thiem (4) is the only other player who has managed to challenge the might of the King of Clay Rafael Nadal on his favorite surface. Djokovic and Thiem lead a small group of seven players to have handed the Spaniard multiple claycourt losses.
Of course, neither Djokovic (7-17) nor Thiem (4-8) owns a winning record on clay against Rafael Nadal. But the fact that they are able to challenge him consistently is rare enough.
Beating Rafael Nadal on clay over five sets is the ultimate challenge for any player. Only Novak Djokovic (2015 quarterfinals) and Robin Soderling (2009 4R) have managed to best Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros.
Thiem has gone 0-4 against Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, their first meeting coming back in 2015. But he broke his Major duck against the Spaniard with a hard-fought four-set win in the 2020 Australian Open quarterfinals.
That was only their second match on hardcourt; Rafael Nadal had gotten the better of Thiem in their previous encounter, at the US Open in 2018. But that was a tense five-setter, and it was clear that Thiem was getting closer.
Dominic Thiem believes that he has developed his game sufficiently to compete better against Rafael Nadal - even at Roland Garros:
“I hope to give myself another chance to play him (Rafael Nadal)," Thiem said in a recent interview. "If I step on that (Philippe Chatrier) court against him again, I have to believe it. I have to transfer the good things which I made against him already and the matches on clay where I beat him even better in Paris."
The Austrian, who took his first set off Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in the 2019 final, also spoke of the enormity of facing the Spaniard on the Parisian clay:
"What I’ve experienced is that it’s way tougher to play him (Rafael Nadal) on Philippe Chatrier because it’s just like his living room,” Thiem described. "The court is so big at one point in the match, you lose the belief that you can win the match, or that you can hit winners, because he’s just playing his best tennis always on the court. There’s a reason he’s only lost two matches there."
Dominic Thiem has come a long way in the last half decade
Thiem, who developed a one-handed backhand under the tutelage of his long-time coach Gunter Bresnik, also talked about his first top 10 win that came against Stan Wawrinka at 2014 Madrid:
“I remember this match very well,” said Thiem. “I didn’t even have a practice with him before and was blown off the court in the first set. Everything was way too fast for me, way too heavy. I got used to a little bit better in the second and third set."
“Even though I beat him, it was still unbelievable motivation to develop my shots to his kind of level, as they are so fast and so heavy. I’m really happy that it finally became that way.”
Thiem has come a long way since that win over Wawrinka in the Spanish capital.
The arrival of Nicolas Massu in his coaching team has taken Thiem's game to another level. The Austrian is no longer content to trade rallies from the baseline, and his increased willingness to be proactive has paid rich dividends outside clay.
“I improved my whole game a lot in the last year. My volleys, my serve, return, which are very important, especially for the faster surfaces,” Thiem said. “With better results, indoors, toward the end of the season, my confidence grew bigger and bigger.”
If Dominic Thiem does get another crack at Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, he would have the added confidence of having beaten the lefty at a Major. But it remains to be seen if that would add up to the Austrian going the distance and actually toppling Rafael Nadal on his favorite surface.
Dominic Thiem looks confident of his chances to pull off the ultimate challenge: conquer Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros. And the Austrian hopes to walk the talk when the opportunity beckons.