Dominic Thiem is part of a very familiar discussion in sports, not just tennis.
It is an age-old sports debate, and it will continue to be: Would you rather win one supreme championship and be moderately decent or respectable — and no better — over a 15-year period, OR, would you prefer to always be in the top tier over 15 years but never win The Big One?
There are variations on that question, but you get the gist of it: Would you like to always play in the semifinals or finals of significant events without winning one, or would you trade in many years of high quality — yet no huge trophy — for that one mammoth prize?
Think of it this way in a tennis-specific sense: Would you rather be Dominic Thiem, or would you rather be Andres Gomez, the surprise 1990 Roland Garros men’s champion, who made six career major quarterfinals and only one semifinal but turned that one semifinal into his major title?
Gomez had that 1990 French Open title, and he produced a 1984 season in which he made the quarterfinals in all three majors he entered, skipping the Australian Open. Other than his 1990 RG crown and his 1984 season, Gomez made no real imprint on the major tournaments. His 1986 season was almost as good as his 1984 season — he won four titles and made two other finals on tour — but for the most part, his career was marked by occasional highs and a lot of moderately good but hardly spectacular performances and results.
Dominic Thiem — not yet 26 years old — has surpassed Gomez in terms of overall consistency and quality. He makes deep runs at the clay Masters tournaments and is poised to do the same again after reaching the Barcelona final by beating Rafael Nadal in straight sets. Thiem has beaten the greatest male clay-court player of all time in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. Thiem continues to affirm the contention that he is the best non-Rafole (Rafa or Novak Djokovic) clay-court player on tour, for those who hold that contention.
Yet, you will find many who think — and it is perfectly valid and reasonable to do so — that Alexander Zverev is the best non-Rafole claycourter on tour.
Why does Zverev get the nod over Thiem in the eyes of many? Titles. It’s that simple. Zverev has won two Masters clay titles while Thiem has won none. The overall Masters title count is 3-1 for Zverev, but clay is the focal point here.
For all of Thiem’s excellence against Rafa — whereas Zverev has not yet beaten Nadal on clay or anywhere else — the Austrian has not lifted clay Masters trophies.
So what if Zverev has been a horror show this year? Thiem hasn’t won a big clay tournament yet, and winning Barcelona isn’t the same as Madrid or especially Rome.
This is how championships profoundly affect tennis — and sports — discussions. Winning championships buys Zverev a lot of leverage and leeway Thiem hasn’t yet created for himself. I personally think Thiem is the better clay-court player, but I totally understand and respect why Zverev would be seen as the superior player. No one doubts that Thiem is playing a lot better right NOW, but when that balance of “right now versus overall track record” is brought into question, Zverev still wins the overall argument for many — not to me, but for many.
To go back to the very start of this piece: Dominic Thiem on clay (not on all surfaces, since he won Indian Wells), is the sports team which is always in the hunt and always gets very close but doesn’t knock the door down. He is like the Houston Rockets, who are about to get another shot at their nemesis and roadblock, the Golden State Warriors, in the NBA Playoffs.
He has the capacity to win. He has the game to thrive. He has the shots, the stamina, the comfort level on a given surface. He just needs to put all the pieces together in the biggest tournaments — the tournaments bigger than Barcelona.
Would you rather be Andres Gomez or Dominic Thiem? Debate that question with your friends this weekend.