Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon wonders what comes next for the Austrian.
What does Dominic Thiem have to do in order to reach World No. 1?
The above seems like a pretty straightforward question but as you’ll see, there are many different possible answers.
The first and easiest one would probably be to say that Thiem, as the current No. 3-ranked player in men’s tennis, will be No. 1 once the two above him on the rankings finally remember that they are getting old and decide to retire. If Djokovic and Nadal are gone, per this logic, then Thiem will automatically be No. 1.
But where’s the fun in that? And anyway, neither Djokovic nor Nadal seem in any hurry to retire.
All that said, what does the Austrian need to do to reach the top of the mountain of men’s tennis? Let’s start by being proactive because it’s a question we can break down two-fold: Thiem first needs to overcome Nadal at No. 2 before even thinking about Djokovic’s throne.
To that end, the 27-year-old is about halfway up the mountain to No. 2; at a mere 725 points behind, we’re probably looking at a couple of solid major events from Thiem combined with two disappointing ones from Nadal, and the pair should get swapped on the rankings.
But that still leaves Thiem with the tall order of catching Djokovic, who as of this writing is 2,180 and 2,905 points clear of second and third place.
In other words, Thiem has his work cut out for him if he hopes to one day be ranked No. 1. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible but merely that he’ll need a lasting and impactful plan and approach. The god news lies probably in how very close he is to accomplishing the thing.
It’s not simply that Thiem is already ranked No. 3 and is close behind the No. 2 player, though it is that. Rather, it’s that his head-to-head against the only two players ranked ahead of him is not nearly as catastrophic as it is for other players of his age or talent: after all, Thiem has five wins in 12 matches, and six in 15, against Djokovic and Nadal. Things, as they say, could be far worse.
Such great results, combined with a winning 5-2 record against Roger Federer, are a testament to the fact that whatever it is that the Austrian is doing on a tennis court is working. And whatever it is that Thiem is doing on a tennis court typically involves a whole lot of heavy groundstrokes and meticulous point construction.
Those traits and characteristics haven’t always shone through, but his evolution and progress have been regular and great to see in real time. As things stand today, Thiem is a great player with very few weaknesses and has become just about the most destructive force in men’s tennis—except on the Wimbledon grass, where he’s yet to do better than a fourth round in 2017, but who among us doesn’t have weaknesses?
Good things should and likely will happen if everything merely stays the same, but there’s one rather foolproof for the man to really put a stranglehold on the ATP. If Thiem hopes to one day reach the tip of the mountaintop and the rarefied air of No. 1 player in men’s tennis, then he needs to keep winning finals.
Nay, he needs to keep winning Grand Slam finals. Up until last season’s revamped US Open, Thiem had made three different major finals and lost them al; it took a global pandemic and a bubble in the middle of New York, as well as a final against someone other than Djokovic or Nadal, for him to finally lift a Grand Slam trophy.
Thiem doesn’t need to do what Djokovic or Nadal did to become No. 1: the millions in prize money, the dozens of Grand Slam and Masters 1000 finals and titles, the countless weeks atop the rankings, all of these are great but are not mandatory to get to No. 1—though it would certainly guarantee him the coveted spot. But he could also get there by doing all that a, say, Andy Murray has accomplished in his playing career.
Can you be as good as Murray, Thiem?
Sure you can.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG