A lot of people wanted Dominic Thiem to beat Novak Djokovic in the 2020 Australian Open men’s final: Dominic Thiem fans. Austrians. Roger Federer fans. Rafael Nadal fans. Fans tired of the Big 3. Fans who wanted to see a new form of history made.
The fact that Thiem didn’t win left many people very disappointed that he didn’t win, and to be sure, Thiem didn’t play as well or as consistently as he needed to in the final sets to get the job done.
Yet, if you’re still being hard on Thiem, as though he really blew it — or as though it’s an indictment of him that he didn’t win — please step back. Stop. Pause. Breathe.
You’re not calibrating this issue properly.
If you want to criticize Thiem — and there are ways to do it properly — the biggest criticism you could make is that he stuck with Gunter Bresnik far too long. The switch to Nicolas Massu has very clearly unlocked Thiem’s talents on hardcourts, whereas Bresnik only developed Thiem on clay.
Had Thiem ditched Bresnik much earlier in his career, he might have prospered to a much greater extent. There are no guarantees, but that seems to be the real insight into Thiem’s career after this loss to Djokovic.
There was no especially good reason for a player with Dominic Thiem’s talents to NOT figure out hardcourts at a much earlier stage in the game. The early 20s were at least somewhat — if not entirely — wasted for Thiem on non-clay surfaces. He can’t get those years back.
The 2020 Australian Open didn’t reveal Thiem’s current flaws. It revealed his PAST flaws, the ones Massu has generally corrected.
This, to me, is the fundamental insight on Thiem after his defeat: If he had developed his hardcourt/non-clay game a lot earlier, this Australian Open final wouldn’t have been his first one… and this felt like EXACTLY the kind of match a player who is ALMOST THERE (but not quite!) loses on his first try.
Then he will figure out the second or third try. That’s what this feels like.
Dominic Thiem had never contested a major final on a non-clay surface before this Australian Open. He had never played Novak Djokovic in a major final before now. Djokovic did his thing. Djokovic did what he almost always does these days: Steel himself in moments of supreme stress and importance.
Thiem could have played better, but Djokovic proved worthy. That shouldn’t be held against Thiem.
This men’s final magnified not just Djokovic, the champion, but Stan Wawrinka. Stan didn’t flinch against Nadal in his first major final at the 2014 Australian Open, or against Djokovic in the 2015 Roland Garros final.
Wawrinka’s ability to win his first Australian, French, and U.S. Open finals from 2014-2016 was always incredibly impressive. Thiem’s loss to Djokovic enables us to see those wins as exponentially greater feats in February of 2020.
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