Dominic Thiem – Age 23, Ranking 9
The oldest player in the list, the Austrian has already reached a Grand Slam semi-final, falling to Novak Djokovic at last year’s Roland Garros.
Pros: When given time on the ball, Thiem is devastating on both forehand and backhand. Like most top professionals, his favoured shot is the inside out forehand, which he hits with enormous spin and pace. Thiem is an expert at manoeuvring his opponent around the court with a succession of viciously angled forehands and can finish the point either with a quicker, flatter forehand or by coming to the net and showcasing his much improved volleys. He also possesses a sumptuous single handed backhand which must be the envy of amateur hackers worldwide: a long, regal take back is followed by powerful rotation through the hips and shoulders, generating terrific racket head speed, and finishes with his torso rotated and his right arm fully extended. When given time, Thiem can consistently rip this shot both cross-court – with acute angles when needed – and down the line, and can easily take the ball at shoulder height and above. Thiem’s defensive slice has improved considerably in recent years; whereas it used to float rather harmlessly and land in the middle of the court, he has added greater bite on the shot and is hitting with better depth, adding to his already formidable defensive game.
Thiem has an excellent service motion, featuring a deep knee bend which enables him to drive up and into the serve with great force. His most eye-catching delivery is the kick serve on the advantage court, which he hits with enormous topspin and vicious angle. The result is a serve which violently kicks off the court, taking his opponent way out of position to his left, leaving the court open for Thiem’s second shot. In the past few years the Austrian has added a huge flat serve to his repertoire, and can hit upwards of 140 MPH on both the deuce and advantage courts. Perhaps he need only add a more consistent slice serve on the deuce court to be a complete server.
Aged 23, Thiem must be counted as one of the most complete athletes on tour. His acceleration, balance when hitting on the stretch, and sheer stamina combine to make him a formidable defensive player. When coupled with his grit and determination on court, Thiem presents a devilish puzzle for his opponents to solve, even more so on slower courts where it is harder to hit winners past the resolute Austrian. Despite his exhausting style – Thiem throws his full body-weight into every serve and ground stroke – he rarely shows fatigue, and is happy to engage his opponents in lengthy rally after lengthy rally, confident that his durability and athleticism will eventually grind down and overwhelm his opponent.
Thiem’s biggest weakness is undoubtedly his return game, where he struggles both to return big first serves and to attack weaker second deliveries. While Thiem can mask the deficiencies of his return on slower clay courts, it presents a huge obstacle to success on every other surface, and is largely responsible for his poor record against top ten opponents on hard courts – thirteen losses and just the solitary win. Thiem struggles to hit through returns on both sides but his forehand return is perhaps more worrying. Partly due to a long swing and extreme western grip, the Austrian struggles to time his forehand return and often resorts to a chipped or bunted shot which immediately places him in a defensive position in the rally. If Thiem is to successfully employ a chipped return, he must improve his depth on the shot, which will preclude opponents from teeing off on their immediate reply. With so few players opting to serve and volley, he need not worry about hitting a floating return, so long as it lands deep in the court.
On the second serve return, Thiem alternates between an aggressive, Andy Murray-esque position inside the baseline, and a more defensive stance some metres behind. The former is designed to take time away from his opponent and start the rally on the front foot, but it does require that he abbreviates his strokes and hits a flatter, riskier return. With his stroke production, Thiem should arguably be standing a few metres behind the baseline, giving him the time to take a full swing and use his ferocious, spin-laden shots to start the rally. While his hard work and bravery to change and add to his game is commendable, it has resulted, in the time being at least, with a muddled returning strategy which arguably does not play to his strengths.
Due to his long strokes and extreme grips, Thiem requires time and space in order to hit his looping strokes and deliver his ballistic groundstrokes. As a result, he is most comfortable standing several feet behind the baseline where he can best affect play. This makes him vulnerable to elite baseliners with compact groundstrokes, who are able to stand on top of the baseline and take the ball on the rise, stealing time away from the opponent. Against players with this aggressive style – call it the Andre Agassi blueprint – Thiem will be forced into the role of retriever & counter-puncher. While this does not preclude victory for the Austrian, it does mean there will be certain match-ups where the fate of the match will, to some degree, lie on the opponents racket.
Chance of Grand Slam victory: 25%
Thiem possesses the raw athleticism, ball-striking talent and dedication needed of a Grand Slam winner. However, modern tennis has become increasingly dominated by those who can strike the ball early, powerfully and consistently from the baseline, a style of play which does not come naturally to Thiem. A vulnerability to elite power-players is exacerbated by Thiem’s rather passive return of serve, which limit his opportunities to get on the front foot in rallies. In order to win a Grand-Slam on anything other than clay, Thiem will need either to make adjustments to his game, or have a fortunate enough draw so that he can avoid elite and in-form baseliners .
Greatest chance of success: Roland Garros
Thiem’s greatest chance of glory undoubtedly lies at Roland Garros. His blend of savage competitiveness, athleticism and enormous topspin makes him perfectly suited for the long rallies typical of clay court tennis. Future opponents will need to go through hell and back to beat the Austrian at Roland Garros. If Thiem can stay fit and patient, he is bound to have an opportunity somewhere down the line to emulate his countryman Thomas Muster and lift La Coupe des Mousquetaires.
Having endured another predictable clay season dominated by the ferocious Rafael Nadal, it is curious to remember a time ten years ago when the clay field was relatively deep and competitive, with a number of good-to-great specialists and no single competitor a la Nadal, able to sweep aside the competition over the clay season for the loss of mere sets.
Corretja was part of a pack of players in the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s, who together comprised one of the greatest clay court fields of all time. Among the Spanish contingent, there was also the eccentric Sergi Bruguera (winner of Roland Garros in 1993 & 1994), the forehand maestro Carlos Moya (winner in 1998), Albert Costa (Roland Garros champion in 2002), Juan Carlos Ferrero (champion in 2003) and Alberto Berasategui. Other great clay specialists of the time included the charismatic Gustavo Kuerten (three time winner in 1997, 2000 & 2001), iron man Thomas Muster (1995 champion) and American Jim Courier (winner in 1991 & 1992). Added to this prestigous group were a number of non-clay specialists who nonetheless thrived on the red dirt – Andre Agassi, Andrei Medvedev, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Magnus Norman. Owing to the sheer depth of the clay game at the time, Corretja never managed to grab a French Open title, losing twice in the final, once to Moya in 1998, and once to Kuerten in 2001. Ironically for a clay court player, his greatest triumph came at the end of year Masters in 1998, on the ice-quick surface of Hanover.
While Corretja possessed all the physical and combative qualities necessary to succeed on clay, he also played with beautiful grace and panache. His single handed backhand was a reliable and gorgeous shot: with its magnificent sweep and unnverving consistency, it mocked the fact that he learned it relatively late in his career, switching over from a two-hander. Having started a glaring weakness in his game, it was honed to perfection in the course of his career, and seen here, is regal yet industrious at the same time. His forehand motion is not entirely dissimilar to that of Juan Monaco’s (currently one of the better clay players on tour). Both men hit with considerable clearance over the net and monstrous topspin, despite using a relatively conservative eastern grip – a peculiarity for clay players, who tend to opt for either a full western or at least semi-western grip.
An adaptable and well rounded player, Corretja held other qualities not usually associated with clay court players. A fantastic returner, he twice beat Pete Sampras in big events, once on grass in Davis Cup Quarter Final, and once in semi finals of the end of year Masters. Clay courters of his grace and consistency are sorely lacking from today’s game.
This weeks edition of ‘Video of the Week’ focuses on an encounter from 2010 between two players whose careers are headed in opposite directions.
Fresh from being awarded his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Moscow, and sporting a beard worthy of a rogue Spetsnaz soldier gone into exile having been disowned by his government following the end of a controversial and regrettable war, Mikhail Youzhny is entering the twilight of his career.
Born in 1988, Marin Cilic is pushing the limit of what can be considered a ‘young gun’, but for the sake of this article, we shall consider him thus. Cilic has delivered some impressive results in the past few years, knocking out Andy Murray to reach the Quarter Finals of the US Open in 2009 and reaching the Semi Finals of the 2010 Australian Open, defeating Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Roddick along the way. However he still suffers from disappointing off-days and is yet to become a permanent fixture in the Quarter Finals and beyond of the Grand Slams.
TennisNiche was fortunate enough to be see Youzhny play against Sicilian Gianluca Naso in the qualifying rounds of the Roma Master Series in 2009. Although past his best at this point, Youzhny was one of the most impressive players TennisNiche has seen in the flesh, sliding effortlessly from corner to corner, and boasting a fantastic array of slices, drop shots and flat drives. Competent in every area of the game, his greatest strength is his single handed backhand, a gorgeous, rhythmic motion which is a joy to watch.
By most standards, Cilic is not nearly as aesthetically pleasing to watch. Superficially, standing at 6’6, his gangly demeanour suggests he has yet to grow into his frame. His serve is an odd motion, featuring a crazy amount of back bend, enough to make anyone wince who history of back pain. Far from Youzhny’s subtle game, Cilic is very much a modern baseliner. His two handed backhand is powerful, consistent and deals with high balls well, and his forehand, when on’, is a riotous force, as Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal can attest to.