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.
The mention of blistering single handed backhands may elicit a confused reaction from recent tennis converts, who know the single handed backhand as a sort of anachronism, only as a cruel and tragic weakness of Federer’s which is treated with disdain whenever he plays the Nadal’s and the Djokovic’s of this world, who use their muscular two handers to bully Federer on his weaker wing. However, for those who recall tennis before the year 2000, the mention of blistering single handed backhands will bring to mind a time when clay court specialists with regal, looping single handers still roamed the tour.
Well, if you seek thunderous, full blooded single handed backhands, which pop off the racket with the thud of canon fire, this video of Nicholas Almagro vs Stanislas Wawrinka should tickle your belly ( assuming your tennis schooling featured a heavy diet of Gustavo Kuerten, Gaston Gaudio and Agustin Calleri.)
Almagro defeated Wawrinka 7-6, 6-2, 6-4 in this duel of blistering backhands at the Australian Open. This was never a match for chess enthusiasts, resembling more an illicit, seedy showing of banned material for those sick, single handed backhand perverts who have been persecuted almost to extinction by the homogenising forces of the ATP. This HD tennistic-peep show exhibits backhands which were honed on clay courts; long, regal strokes which finish with a flourish and jump off the court with heavy topspin.
To a casual player of tennis, the technique and timing of these backhands on show is jaw dropping, an effect which is only emphasised by watching the current top 100 and seeing a wealth of fairly robotic and uniform two handers. There is almost a romantic element of risk with having a one handed backhand, as while there are many stunning one handers, there are also conversely probably more obvious examples of awful one handed backhands among top players than there are two handed backhands – while Igor Andreev and John Isner might be said to have limited two handers, they are still more useful shots than the awful topspin backhands of Fernando Gonzalez or Feliciano Lopez.
Almagro and Wawrinka’s backhands are perfect fits for the relentless topspin of the modern game – powerful and consistent, they match up well even to the vicious interrogation that is the Rafa Nadal forehand. Considering this, it is curiously frustrating that other such backhands are so absent on the tour.
In an era of tennis characterised by ever homogenising court surfaces, a static top ten and a rather tedious prevalence of baseline play, the sport is crying out for a top player to emerge who plays with something approaching flair, ingenuity and flamboyance. Roger Federer epitomizes these qualities but is nearing his thirties and has his best days behind him, while Andy Murray possesses the tools to play both a varied baseline game and to effectively finish points at the net, but lacks the mental intangibles to fully utilise his abilities on the biggest stage.
Going through the current ATP top 30 makes depressing reading – the vast majority of players have solid two handed backhands, possess excellent lateral movement and defense (those who move sluggishly tend to compensate with a cannon of a serve – read, John Isner, Andy Roddick) but move towards the net with a great reluctance and lack both volleying technique and the awareness of how to cut off angles for passing shots.
Tomic, not unlike fellow counter-puncher and strategist Andy Murray, does not suffer for lack of natural talent or variety in his game. On the surface his style has some facets which are symptomatic of the generic modern game – a two handed backhand, excellent defensive anticipation and a inclination toward prolonged baseline points. What separates Tomic from this group is his unique technique and tactical variety. His languid, relaxed style on the forehand and his willingness to hit a series of slow, floated slices followed by a flat, risky forehand are among the facets which mark him as a potential saviour from a future tennis scene dominated by those with great consistency and athletic talents but scant in the way of court craft or ingenuity (think along the lines of Viktor Troicki).
Strengths & Weaknesses
Tomic’s unusual forehand technique is perhaps the most notable of his traits. One feature of modern tennis is a progression of players hitting with greater amounts of topspin, especially on the forehand. Most players now employ a semi western or full western grip on their forehand and follow through on the shot with a high finish (occasionally, like Nadal, with a lasso style above-the-head finish), both of which combine to produce maximum topspin.
Tomic’s forehand does not conform to the modern standard, but is not exactly a traditional stroke either. He has a moderate semi-western grip, a short take back and a fairly lateral motion throughout the swing, as opposed to a low-to-high finish. Consequently, Tomic’s forehand is concurrently a strength and a weakness. As a more conservative rallying shot it is vulnerable to falling short and inviting pressure from the opponent, but equally when he decides to go for a flat hit, can act as a deadly and unexpected weapon (crucially, owing to his technique, Tomic can vary the pace on his forehand without changing the take back on his swing).
Tomic possesses other weapons which are a rarity on the tour today; an almost insultingly effortless slice backhand which he can skim low over the net cross-court or just as easily hit down the line with vicious side-spin, producing both shots with the kind of grace which makes a mockery of Nadal and Djokovic’s muscling of the ball; a beautiful feel on both sides, particularly for drop shots; solid, textbook volleying technique; a good return of serve aided by a short take back on both forehand and backhand; a good service action which, although has ample room for improvement, produces a pacey and dangerous first serve; the ability to change direction of the ball with ease; and a great spatial awareness on the court which helps to compensate for his lack of foot speed and aides his already intelligent shot selection.
While it may seem harsh to point out flaws while he is still so young, there are obviously areas for improvement in Tomic’s game. Besides the aforementioned weakness in his rallying forehand, he also needs work on his second serve, which unfortunately resembles too much that of Murray’s (slow, lacking kick and easily attackable). Some have placed question marks over his attitude, pointing out his occasional arrogant off-court statements and seemingly indifferent attitude on the court. While clearly he hasn’t fully developed physically, at present he certainly fits into the ‘lanky’ category, and his rather anaemic movement around the court reflects this (although some connect this to the aforementioned indifference on court).
- Tomic will be a top 5 player and a grand slam contender within the next three years; TennisNiche predicts multiple grand slam titles and the no. 1 spot but this is heavily dependant on how Tomic’s character develops and whether he can stay injury free.
- As for 2012, TennisNiche will go out on a limb and predict the following:
- 1 Grand Slam semi-final (Wimbledon or the US Open) and one 4th round. An early exit at Roland Garros seems a near certainty owing to his lack of wins on clay at the professional level.
- 1 Masters Series final (probably later in the year, at Shanghai or Paris), and one semi-final.
- 1 victory over the ‘top 4’ of Federer/ Nadal/ Djokovic/ Murray in a best of 3 format.