One of America’s greatest poets, writers and thinkers, Maya Angelou, offered many wise insights throughout her prolific and influential life. One such insight — repeated a lot in this current decade of political turmoil in the United States — is this: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”
Can a statement be any more precise in describing Dominic Thiem?
I am not concerned about the fact that he lost in the quarterfinals of Hamburg on Friday to Nicolas Jarry, in two tiebreakers which easily could have gone the other way. I am not concerned about the fact that Thiem still hasn’t won a 500-point tournament on European clay, or that he has only one clay title worth 500 points, none at the Masters level. I am much more concerned with the simple fact that Thiem, after suffering an injury at Wimbledon, even bothered to play Hamburg. I am bothered by the fact that a player who reached his first Roland Garros final this year — and thereby affirmed his identity as the No. 2 clay player in the world behind Rafael Nadal — did not think he had done enough on clay in 2018 to feel satisfied about where he stood on the surface.
Players who make Roland Garros finals and then play Hamburg a month and a half later are clearly not satisfied with their clay results. When Rafa played Hamburg a few years ago, he had reason to play the event. He had fallen far short of his normal clay standards in the spring and wanted to try to find a spark in summer. He wanted to play his way into form at a time in his career when form was persistently elusive.
Roger Federer played Hamburg in 2013 after a shockingly early loss at Wimbledon, but that loss alone wouldn’t have been enough to warrant playing extra tennis. Federer switched to a larger racquet, and that is why he ventured into Germany for an added clay tournament — he wanted to test his racquet and see how it would work. Federer and Nadal both encountered highly unusual and particular circumstances which carved out a rare opportunity to play #SummerClaySeason in search of a much bigger benefit.
Thiem — whose comfort on clay is just as conspicuous as his lack of comfort on other surfaces — knows that the next several important tournaments on the ATP schedule are all on hardcourts: Canada, Cincinnati, the U.S. Open, Shanghai, Bercy, the ATP Finals, and the Australian Open. Those are seven events totaling 9,500 points. A top-10 player, coming off injury, knowing how limited his game is on non-clay surfaces, and not yet 25 years old, should be throwing all his attention toward a combination of rest, practice and preparation for the summer hardcourt season. Yet, while the Big 3 rest, there was Thiem chasing a clay 500 in late July, undercutting his position and leverage for the next big set of tournaments.
The point is not to declare or litigate whether this is smart scheduling. The point is to underscore the words from Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”
You might not think Dominic Thiem is a clay-court specialist. Your friends might think he is.
My response: Dominic Thiem himself thinks he is a clay-court specialist, and nothing more. His scheduling decisions are making that statement. Words aren’t necessary when decisions reveal such a clear thought process at work.
Yes, Thiem made the fourth round of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open last year. Yes, he is much better on grass than, say, Pablo Carreno Busta. Yes, he is far more functional on hardcourts than Marco Cecchinato. Thiem is certainly not the worst of the worst on non-clay surfaces. He has talents which, if harnessed, can translate really well to non-clay tennis. Yet, with scheduling practices such as Hamburg and Kitzbuhel, Thiem is basically standing in front of the global tennis world and saying, “I am a clay specialist.” Why? Because this is how clay specialists schedule.
True, Thiem — if he wants to be even more of a clay specialist — should not even play a few of the non-clay events he puts on his calendar each year, but even with that being the case, playing Hamburg this season, under these circumstances, is the mark of a player who cares about clay and doesn’t care about the rest of his calendar.
Maya Angelou would not disagree.