Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka the Headliners in Marbella

Dominic Thiem will make his return to action in Marbella.
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As the Miami Open rumbles on in Florida, there wouldn’t normally be many eyes on the Challenger Tour’s Andalucia Open, a clay-court event held in Marbella on Spain’s sun-drenched south coast. But that will change this year. Marbella is going to have some serious star power. As the clay season begins, both Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka have announced their return at the event, starting this Monday. That is also, coincidentally, Wawrinka’s 37th birthday.

It’s been an agonising injury-induced period away from tennis for the pair, who are both desperate to return despite being at very different stages of their careers. Wawrinka had the longer lay-off, having not played in more than a year following a foot injury. His fitness issues have been extensive, forcing the Swiss into a reduced playing schedule since undergoing knee surgery in 2017. While he intends to fully commit himself to the tour, this is likely the start of the last chapter in the wonderful career of the three-time Grand Slam champion.

Even before his latest injury, Wawrinka’s results had been inconsistent. As a result, expectations for the #232 are muted ahead of his return. With wildcards confirmed for both the Monte-Carlo Masters and the French Open, Marbella will be a vital test of his game. The expectations for Thiem are higher. It was an awful 2021 for the popular Austrian, affected by injury and struggles with form. An epic five-set comeback against Nick Kyrgios in Australia was the highlight, but it was all downhill from there.

Shock losses to Lloyd Harris in Dubai and Lorenzo Sonego in Italy suggested something was amiss. A first-round French Open defeat to Pablo Andujar – after being up two sets – was the low point. In June 2021, a wrist injury forced Thiem to withdraw from a match in Mallorca, the same problem that eventually ended his season. Since then, it has been a rocky road to recovery. A comeback attempt at the Australian Open was aborted, as was his plan to play Argentina’s Cordoba Open in February. His decision to withdraw from the Sunshine Double in Indian Wells and Miami felt almost expected.

After announcing his participation in Marbella with just days to go, it seems certain that Thiem is ready to go. He will be desperate to get back on court – he has plenty of catching up to do. After a superb 2020, the 28-year-old has seen one of his prime years cut short. He missed the chance to defend his US Open title last year, as well as Wimbledon, the Olympics and the Australian Open. His injury problems have seen his ranking fall to #50 from a career-high of #3.

Like Wawrinka, this week will be vital for the Austrian ahead of the rest of the season. Inevitably though, Thiem’s goals will be more ambitious. A French Open victory this year may seem premature, but it is not entirely out of the question. His sole Grand Slam title may have been won on hard courts, but clay is traditionally Thiem’s strongest surface. If Nadal is the king of clay, Thiem has become something of a prince.

Ten of his 17 titles have been one on clay, along with a further seven finals. When you consider that two of those finals defeats were against Nadal at Roland Garros, you remember just how elite he is. As he put it, all the way back in 2018: ‘Even if I have been playing on hard courts for six months, when I come back to clay, even on the very first day, it feels like I have played on it for years. I feel completely fine’.

On Monday, he will put that statement to the test. After so long away, it feels good to have Thiem and Wawrinka return again.

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