Atlas, the Greek mythological figure who had to carry the world on his shoulders, can relate to what Dominic Thiem is about to confront in the Madrid-Rome two-week double stack.
Last year, two ATP players — Rafael Nadal and Alexander Zverev — won a title and posted a quarterfinal result in the Madrid-Rome double. The next two best results were both final-semifinal combinations. Novak Djokovic reached the final in Rome and the semis in Madrid. Thiem made the final in Madrid and the semis in Rome. When Thiem clocked Djokovic in the Roland Garros quarterfinals, he affirmed himself as a genuine threat on clay, akin to the last great Austrian to achieve such status as a red dirt devil, Thomas Muster.
No one would dispute the notion that Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka — when playing and feeling their best — are bigger threats to Rafael Nadal’s citadel of clay-court superiority, but neither man has felt well enough to play top-shelf tennis, on clay or any other surface, in the past 18 months. Andy Murray might not be as good as Nole or Stan on clay, but even he was able to flip the “on” switch in Paris last year and come within one fourth-set tiebreaker of reaching the final for the second straight year in Paris. He won’t play Roland Garros this season.
Injuries and attrition on the ATP Tour therefore leave Thiem as a natural choice — if only by process of elimination — as one of the main contenders at the French Open this year. When he beat Djokovic in Monte Carlo, he reminded the tour of his credentials on terre battue. Even if he stumbles in Madrid and Rome (not one city, but both), he will still be impossible to ignore heading into Paris.
Thiem, unlike Alexander Zverev, has established himself on clay to the point that he can struggle these next two weeks and still merit a certain degree of trust when Roland Garros begins. Zverev has been so poor at the majors that even a good two weeks from the German won’t (and shouldn’t) buy him the benefit of the doubt on Court Philippe Chatrier or Suzanne Lenglen. French Open legitimacy is not what Thiem is playing for in Madrid and Rome — at least not entirely.
No, the bigger plot point attached to Thiem’s Madrid-Rome crossroads is that with the points he is defending, Senor Bamos must do well in Spain and Italy merely to uphold his place in the ATP rankings. A significant loss of points — which would occur even if he makes the quarterfinals (but no deeper) in both Masters tournaments — would put Thiem under huge pressure to deliver the goods in Paris. Clay is Thiem’s one surface-based stronghold on tour. A failure to back up his 2017 portfolio of results in 2018 would knock Thiem to the bottom of the top 10. With Djokovic lurking near No. 10 and Wawrinka returning to the tour in Madrid, the grass and summer hardcourt seasons figure to be tougher than they were in 2017… and even then, Thiem couldn’t take advantage.
If he doesn’t defend his clay fortress, he is in big trouble in terms of both the ATP race to London and his overall standing in the rankings, which will severely cripple his chances of making a home in the top four and getting the better draws which could make a difference in his hardcourt results in 2019. The domino effect tied to Thiem’s 2018 clay performance is real and profound in ways which don’t apply to other players, certainly not as severely.
Losing in Barcelona to Stefanos Tsitsipas is not a big reason to be concerned. Thiem’s penchant for overscheduling makes that early exit a less-than-shattering problem. if anything, the loss gave his body more time to recuperate for Madrid and Rome.
Now, however, the pressure truly emerges for Thiem. While everyone waits to see what Zverev does at Roland Garros, and while Djokovic and David Goffin both try to work their way back into form, Thiem has less time — or margin — for error in Madrid and Rome.
His venture down Atlas Alley is about to begin.