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ANDERSON AND THIEM FIND A HOME ON THE ROAD

by Matt Zemek

The show “Mad Men” — gone but hardly forgotten — owns many iconic moments. One came at the end of the first season. (In order to not provide spoilers for those who haven’t watched the show, I won’t go into the details of the relevant scene.)

Don Draper, the show’s central character played by Jon Hamm, offers this reflection as part of a sales pitch to clients:

“This device isn’t a spaceship; it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards, and takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

“It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels: round and around, back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

Human beings own this constant ache to go home again — not spatially, but to the place in mind, heart, body, soul or spirit where they feel most comfortable, most confident in their abilities, most fully integrated in one or more aspects of their lives. No matter where we go, we want to feel at home — in our skin, in our work, in our ambitions, in our relationships. We want to know peace, we want to know we have at least some control over our destinies (though we realize we can’t control everything), we want to know we are capable and skilled and, despite past setbacks, can show the world we can bounce back.

This is true for scientists and poets, for lawyers and salespeople, for people across the spectrum of human experience. Tennis players are not exempt from this, so it is only natural to consider the above words and note how much they fit the two non-Roger Federer ATP Tour winners this past week.

In Uniondale, New York, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, two men were at home on court. In those two very distant locales, hundreds if not thousands of miles away from their physical places of residence, Kevin Anderson and Dominic Thiem came back home again, to places where the sport of tennis has loved them. 

They both found the warm caress of tennis once again.

Anderson’s sense of home came from returning to the New York metropolitan area, where he forged his greatest career achievement at last year’s U.S. Open. Anderson captured the inaugural New York Open with a win over Sam Querrey in Sunday’s final.

The New York Open was held inside Nassau Coliseum, a building where three NHL Stanley Cup championships were won with the York Islanders in 1980, 1981, and 1983. Nassau looks very different compared to its glory days more than 30 years ago. Yet, like any tightly-fought NHL playoff game, Anderson’s week on Long Island involved very slight margins. He was skating on thin ice during the whole tournament. 

He never slipped — not when he needed to, at any rate.

He was dragged into a deciding third set in each of his four matches, and taken into the crucible of a final-set tiebreaker in three of those four matches, including a breaker in both Sunday’s final and in Saturday’s semifinal against Kei Nishikori. 

Anderson could barely win a match in October after his U.S. Open run. The ATP Tour saw the target on the South African’s back and fired away. Anderson predictably struggled to withstand the barrage, something which continued into this year with a first-round loss at the Australian Open. Though hardly dominant on Long Island this past week, Anderson showed the stamina and staying power he exhibited at the U.S. Open. Anderson has made strides in improving his durability over the years. Playing four full-length matches in Nassau Coliseum tested his resources, and he answered the call each time.

New York is Kevin Anderson’s second (third?) home. Don’t tell him a specific place doesn’t hold special meaning for him.

With Dominic Thiem, the city of Buenos Aires is not necessarily the added home New York is for Anderson, but Argentina’s capital owns the simple characteristic which transforms Thiem’s tennis: Its ATP tournament is played on red clay.

One does not need to launch into a discussion of Thiem’s fortunes on non-clay surfaces. That talking point has been worn out to the point of exhaustion. Thiem reminded everyone on tour of his non-clay identity in the best possible way this past week: He won the Argentina Open without losing a set on red dirt. In only one of the eight sets Thiem played did he win a set which went past the 10th game (a tiebreaker set won against Guido Pella in the quarterfinals). Thiem lost a combined total of nine games in both the semifinal (Gael Monfils) and final (Aljaz Bedene).

The Austrian might not win the French Open this year or the next — this other guy named Nadal (ever heard of him?) might have something to say about the matter — but it does seem increasingly hard to believe that Thiem won’t, in time, lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires at least once, much like his Austrian predecessor, Thomas Muster, in 1995.

On hardcourts and grass, Thiem lives in a state of tennis exile, a foreigner in a familiar place. He wears tennis shorts and wields a racquet on cement or lawn, but he could not be more out of place, removed from his element. Transport him to crushed red brick, and the geometry of his strokes neatly falls together.

Thiem is home.

Kevin Anderson and Dominic Thiem have traveled ’round and ’round the world, but they have come back home again, to a place where they know they are loved by the sport of tennis.

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