It is fair to point out that Dominic Thiem should not eat a bagel against Sam Querrey, at Wimbledon or anywhere else. It is fair to note that Thiem faded in the fourth set on Tuesday at the All England Club, something an elite player generally should not do. It is fair to say that if Thiem really and truly belongs with the Big Boys in tennis (the Big 3 — not at the same level, but as a worthy challenger to everything they represent), he should figure out how to beat a tough opponent in the first round while also solving problems on his least comfortable surface.
All those points are fair. It is also worth noting that Sam Querrey caught fire and was making virtually every shot in the fourth set. If Thiem failed to seize opportunities on Tuesday, Querrey took advantage of them and played elite tennis in the last two sets, particularly the fourth. Thiem might not have fought for this match as well as he should have, but Querrey still earned the victory with plainly superior play. Comfort level on a surface certainly mattered, and Querrey made full use of it.
Where does this leave us with Dominic Thiem? It’s a fascinating question everyone has an opinion on.
Plenty will say this Querrey loss reaffirms Thiem as a one-surface player, and at the major tournaments to this point in his career, that’s true.
What is also indisputably true is that Thiem is lost on grass. He is not making progress on this surface. There are no tangible signs of improvement. Given that modern pros don’t have ample time to play on this stuff, and given the reality that Thiem will constantly play lots of tennis in the preceding clay season, one shouldn’t expect considerable progress in the next two to three years.
This is where the discussion becomes complicated: Does Thiem’s lack of an answer on grass mean he is a one-surface player? I would say no, because of his 2018 U.S. Open performance and his Indian Wells championship earlier this year. Yet, it does remain that Thiem has not yet made a semifinal at one of the two hardcourt majors. With Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas losing early at Wimbledon, and Kevin Anderson being likely to shed points from last year, Thiem is in great position to get the No. 4 seed at the U.S. Open and earn a draw which should give him a favorable path to the semifinals.
I think everyone who participates in a discussion of Dominic Thiem’s tennis identity would agree that hardcourts represent the surface where Thiem has:
A) shown improvement over the past 12 months;
and B) needs to continue to build results to burnish his overall career credentials.
If he CAN, we can begin to get a clearer idea of what Thiem can realistically achieve in his career.
The model for Thiem, as I see it, is Stan Wawrinka — not in the sense of being erratic in general, or being wobbly in ATP 500s and Masters 1000s, but in terms of being able to go deep at hardcourt and clay majors while not worrying about a lack of a grass portfolio. It is obvious that grass never was and never will be a comfortable surface for Stan.
Fine, Stan essentially said. He won Roland Garros, the Australian Open, and the U.S. Open.
Thiem doesn’t appear ready to win any of those three tournaments — not as long as Rafael Nadal is there on clay and Novak Djokovic is there on hardcourts, with Roger Federer lurking as a threat — but if he can start making semifinals at those hardcourt majors, and he gets an upset in his favor or Nadal’s knees betray him on hardcourts once again, he could make a major final in Melbourne or New York.
Do we view Wawrinka negatively for his grass failures? I don’t get the sense that the tennis world sees that as a dramatic failure or an inexcusable gap on his resume.
Like Stan, Thiem might never figure out grass, but as long as he keeps evolving on hardcourts to the extent that he starts performing well at the two hardcourt majors, Dominic will affirm himself not as a one-surface player, but as a player who can figure out every surface but one…
the one used at Wimbledon.