The Dominic Thiem comeback is slow but steady

Dominic Thiem 2020 French Open Round 1
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The Dominic Thiem comeback story continued with defeat to Andy Murray in Madrid, and the Austrian’s frustrated grimace told the whole story. As his post-wrist injury comeback run extended to 0-4, Thiem’s disappointment was visible as he approached Murray for the post-match handshake. There, the Briton gave him some encouraging words:

“I hope you feel better soon. I’m glad to see you back, keep going, it takes a lot of time but you’ll be fine.”

Murray knows what he’s talking about. He understands the devastating effects of injuries better than anyone, as well as the sheer, gut-busting determination needed to recover. In Thiem, he has someone very similar to himself.

The parallels between the two men don’t end there. The story behind their injuries is also similar. Both men had enjoyed largely injury-free careers until they were struck down, Murray by his hip, and Thiem by his wrist.

Both were also enjoying the prime of their careers just before these major setbacks. Murray had climbed to world #1 just months before his hip injury threatened to end his career in 2017. In Thiem’s case he had won his first Grand Slam, cementing himself as a serious force in the men’s circuit and a perennial contender at every Major. His career was primed to take off.

While we have seen Murray’s career play out post-hip replacement surgery, the Dominic Thiem comeback is still in its early stages. So far, it’s been a tough ride back. He aborted plans to play at the Australian Open at the start of the year, and then withdrew from his next scheduled return date in Argentina.

He shelved plans to play the “Sunshine Double” in the U.S. Eventually, he made his competitive return at a Challenger event in Marbella in March. There, a straight sets loss in the first round was compounded by contracting COVID shortly afterwards. Three further clay court events have come and gone, each ending in defeat at the first time of asking. At the time of writing his ranking has fallen to #91.

Following more than nine months off the court, it’s entirely understandable that the Austrian is currently far from his best. Just look at how a lack of court time has affected Novak Djokovic, who is struggling by his standards despite not suffering from an injury.

After all, this is a sport separated by inches. At the top levels of pro tennis the margin between defeat and victory is often tiny. Every player must get everything possible out of their ability – because even small losses of performance can lead to a big difference in results.

Should Dominic Thiem worry about his comeback after four successive losses? Not necessarily. Make no mistake, there are plenty of promising signs. The tape shows that his movement is still good on clay. His one-handed backhand, one of the most picturesque on the ATP Tour, looks as lethal as it was. His serve equally looks untroubled.

While it’s certainly too early to hit the panic alarm, it’s clear that the effects of his wrist injury still bother him.

The biggest difference is his forehand, which is currently a shell of what it was. As a player who uses his wrist heavily, adjusting this shot is especially tough for Thiem. The booming power and heavy topspin that characterized his game seem neutered. He is struggling to get any depth on that shot, resulting in loopy, unthreatening strokes that leave him open to attack.

It isn’t clear if this is a specifically physical problem, a mental one, or both. It is entirely possible that he is simply reluctant to hit the ball with so much force to avoid re-injury. Either way, his forehand simply isn’t a weapon for him right now.

The question now is when he will play like the old Thiem again. With each defeat, the worried whispers from the tennis world will only get louder. He will play at this week’s Rome Masters, with an extra week afterwards before Roland Garros begins on 22 May. Thiem knows it’s a long road back from injury, but will desperately hope that the elusive first win isn’t far away.

Main Photo from Getty.