by Saqib Ali
Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios are seen as two future major champions in men’s tennis. To be more precise, they are seen as part of a set of players who will soon contend for major titles. Thiem is seen as one of the three best clay-court players in the world, while Kyrgios at his best can beat most top players on all surfaces outside of clay. Together they possess some of the biggest shots in the men’s game today; Thiem’s forehand is a deadly weapon on clay while Kyrgios’ serve, if on target, can wreak havoc, no matter who is trying to return it. They both have a decent fan base considering their global appeal. However they both have gone about their business quite differently on the tour. Surprisingly they have faced each other only once in pro tennis, in a match Kyrgios could not finish.
Thiem has built a reputation of being a workhorse. He is seen as someone who likes to play a lot of tennis. His schedule has been a talking point for tennis pundits throughout the years. A general consensus is he plays too much and hence has been fatigued at important points in the tennis season. He has been asked this question by quite a few reporters during the many press appearances he has had this year. At times he has acknowledged that he and his team will look into the scheduling. At times he has been clearly unhappy when asked about his scheduling. One interesting choice he made earlier this year was when he flew to South America from Holland to play a clay event, only to play a hardcourt event in Mexico the following week. Of course he won the clay event, but the miles he put on the body and the choice of consecutive weeks of play on different surfaces did not fit the decision making process of a top player. Thiem was also criticized for his decision to play the Antalya grass event, where he delivered a tired performance in a first-round loss. This loss prompted murmurs of appearance fees that sometimes draw top players to smaller events. This was a very uncharacteristic criticism toward Thiem, and an unfair one. Even his harshest critics will not cite him for a lack of effort.
Unlike Thiem, Kyrgios has openly said this year that at times he has lacked motivation and has tanked some matches. This candid admission is too revealing to some tennis fans — it further polarizes tennis watchers and adds to the enigma Nick has become. Kyrgios’s love-hate relationship with his tennis life is there for all to see. He is learning tennis lessons as his own pace — it can be very frustrating for the most loyal Kyrgios fans to stick to his side. Before him many players such as Boris Becker, Andre Agassi and Marat Safin had a similarly philosophical take on their profession and why they suffered on court emotionally. Kyrgios has had moments of brilliance this year… and some forgetful losses as well. His upside is huge, which keeps the loyalists glued in anticipation of when he might strike next. To be fair to Nick, he has tried working with a new coach this year, but cut ties after an unsuccessful U.S. Open campaign. Kyrgios wants to figure this out on his own terms but has slowly given the conventional tennis life a chance as well, in terms of a player coach relationship. Kyrgios clearly does not have the same workload as Thiem. Even if he did, he would likely have more injury niggles than his frame can handle at this point in his career. His Achilles’ heel has been his fitness at most majors this year. Kyrgios needs to manage this better if he is to make a serious run deep in meaningful events next year. This will also help him achieve his goals for his foundation that he spoke so passionately about last week. He also suffered a big loss in his personal life in the spring – passing of his grandfather.
Thiem is known to work hard off the court — that can help him avoid fitness-related injuries. This is a testimony to his very professional approach to the game. He is way better managed than Kyrgios in this department. However Thiem has also been under the scanner for his mediocre run on hard courts this year. Last year he had won 31 matches on hard courts coming into his hometown tournament in Vienna. This year he has won only 22 of the 40 hard-court matches at the same juncture. This is a cause of concern for a player who plays too much and has been residing in the top tier of the rankings for almost two years. His breakout match was against Djokovic in Miami last year. He lost that match but challenged the then-World No. 1 in that match. That showed the world his hitting power — he stayed with Djokovic in lot of long baseline exchanges. If we have not forgotten already – Novak Djokovic was the standard of hard court tennis during that phase. That match propelled him to newer heights even though he did not win it. He had a good year in 2016. With that came the high expectations of the following year – and he has clearly felt the weight of being the hunted. His hard-court game has struggled mostly against big servers. This year he has had some rough losses against that very kind of player. A dip in confidence can be magnified in a one-on-one sport like tennis, more than a team sport. Opponents can sense when someone is struggling to close out matches — and Steve Johnson exactly knew this was the case with Thiem in Shanghai. Thiem could have been underplayed in the inaugural Laver cup, where he was part of a supremely talented team Europe. In his only singles outing he prevailed over the big serving John Isner. This was a win which few of us thought would be a good confidence booster for the young Austrian. It was short lived as he has lost his three matches on tour since then, and none of them were to the prototype of the player we discussed earlier. Will he start standing closer to the baseline and attack more? It will need to be seen as he is a modern day Thomas Muster who is very good on one surface but needs the adjustments on other surfaces.
Both men also battle the long shadows of their respective countries’ tennis heroes. Kyrgios comes from the land where tennis has enormous tradition, Australia. The ghosts of Laver, Newcombe and even Hewitt are very hard to live up to. Young Kyrgios is often under fire back home for his tennis actions and commentary, at times rightfully but also other times in a misunderstood way. He seems to suffer from a generational gap of expectations and has at times seemed determined to let his tennis speak for him, as he did in a couple of Davis cup weekends this year. That is definitely one way to win back some Aussie love for him — Davis Cup is huge in Australia.
Kyrgios has called off his season due to the resurfacing of the same injury that has bothered him since Wimbledon. He has headed back to Australia. In his parting message he said his goal is to be ready for the upcoming big Australian summer. Time is still on his side for now – here is hoping he figures out a few of the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle; that is the ATP life on tour. Thiem too, battles the legend of Muster – who is seen as a national hero in his country for his French open win and Davis cup heroics. Thiem is clearly regarded as someone who has more overall potential to achieve greater things but his decision of skipping Davis cup has not been taken kindly to. After a long season, Thiem has still a lot to play for. He can mend some fences at home by making a strong run in the Erste Open – of course winning it all would go a long way. for his support at home. His year still has some meaningful tennis left and unlike Kyrgios – tennis is all Thiem wants and is driven to succeed at it even more.
Championship glory is the destination and both these gladiators are taking their own path towards it. Thiem keeps marching ahead even though sometimes he seems to hit a certain wall, whereas Nick has the capability to getting their sooner but he choses to stop and go the other way at times. These are two contrasting mindsets – who have a very good likelihood to succeed on their own terms with slight tinkering of the absolute work approach they know. As fans, we have the best seat in this live theater where new and exciting chapters will be written soon for both. And tennis will not be poorer if this combo would contests major weekend matches in the near future.