As a teenager, Thiem had already strung together Futures titles in 2012, and by the end of 2013, it was Challenger titles. But still ranked outside the top 100, he was about to impress not just the Netherlands crowd but his fellow pros.
He entered his first Rotterdam draw after qualifying for the Australian Open and winning his first Grand Slam match. Switching indoors, he also came through qualifying to reach the second round, where he met—and gave an almighty scare to—Andy Murray. It took the Briton two hours, 21 minutes to pull out the win in three sets, and the Briton admitted, with a wry smile: “An exciting game to watch but not much fun to play: I’m sure we’re going to see a lot more of him! I remember playing matches like that when I was his age and it was a lot of fun! Now it’s a bit more stressful, but when I finish the match, I can appreciate his game and how he plays.”
For how Thiem plays is guaranteed to draw tennis fans: An energetic, compact, aggressive game with hints of Stan Wawrinka’s about it—not least in a single-handed background wrought from a similar cast.
Sure enough, after Rotterdam 2014, he broke the top 100, reached the third round of his first Masters in Indian Wells—and again in Madrid—made his first final in Kitzbuhel in July, his first Grand Slam fourth round at the US Open, and broke the top 40 by the autumn.
Thiem faded towards the end of his first big season, but took off again in Miami last year with his first Masters quarter-final run—again taking Murray to three sets—followed by his first title in Nice and then back-to-back titles in Umag and Gstaad. After breaking the top 20, he was, not surprisingly, one of the four nominees for Most Improved Player in the ATP World Tour Awards.
And just like two years ago, February has become a spring-board to take Thiem to the next stage, a career-high No14 in the rankings, after putting together a remarkable 13-1 run through both clay and hard-court tournaments: the title in Buenos Aires—beating Rafael Nadal—plus the semis in Rio—with a win over David Ferrer—and concluding last night with his first ATP500 title in Acapulco.
Just as significant is that, in a strong draw that featured Ferrer, Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic, Thiem triumphed over two fellow ‘90s generation’ rivals in first-time meetings, first Grigor Dimitrov and, in the final, the in-form Bernard Tomic.
The Thiem-Tomic final was the third on the tour between players born in the 1990s, and all three have involved Thiem (with David Goffin the other player to feature). Thiem is the youngest of them all, and his 18 match wins in 2016 currently leads the tour, ahead of Roberto Bautista Agut.
The nature of Thiem’s win, after playing such a packed February schedule, was just as impressive, a gruelling two-hour three-setter 7-6(6), 4-6, 6-3.
Tomic, who himself hit a career-high 17 last month, seemed to have the upper hand in the early stages, and took the first break of the match and held to love for 4-1. But with Tomic serving for the set at 5-3, Thiem took advantage of a poor service game by the Australian to break to love, winning 12 straight points, and after a couple of easy holds, they went to a tie-break, edged by Thiem.
In the second set, Tomic again took an early break, 3-2, and this time Tomic fought off break points to level the match, and looked ready to ride his momentum to the title with a break in the first game of the third. But Thiem broke straight back, and raced to victory.
The 22-year-old was rightly delighted with his stunning February: “It was unbelievable. These three weeks have been amazing. Winning my first 500 title and first hard-court title, it was just perfect. It was how a final should be, between two young and up-and-coming players. I hope we’re going to play many more finals together.”
Before the final, Thiem spoke to the Sky Sports about his two-year journey into the upper levels of the tour.
“Two years ago, I played here and lost to Goffin [in the second round of qualifying]. We were both just outside the top 100 so it’s pretty impressive how we developed and how much happened these two years. [Goffin is now ranked No16.]
“I always have this little protection that I’m still young, but I’m already 22, so not that young any more, and many even younger players are coming up, so this year and next year is when I really have to step up and play well at big tournaments.”
The Austrian has matured not just in his all-round game and physique, but in personality too. Still quietly spoken, he is more confident, more articulate, and clearly has a smart head on his shoulders.
“There was still a little bit missing last year, I didn’t beat a top-10 guy, and this is the most important things for young players like me, to get as many matches as possible against these big guys because then you can see what your level is and improve it.
“It’s a very special era to have that many good players, but there are many young and promising players and, maybe not this year or next year, but it may [soon] be time for them, and I hope I am one of those to step up and break into the top four and win the big titles.”
As he says, the ‘90s generation’ is beginning to edge into the reckoning, led by the oldest of them, Milos Raonic, who hit No4 last May before slipping to a current No13 through injury. And Thiem, Goffin and Tomic are inside the top 20, with Jack Sock and Grigor Dimitrov—along with the youngest, 20-year-old Nick Kyrgios joining them after winning his first title last week—in the top 30.
Who will be the next to break the top 10, perhaps even the top four? This correspondent will stick with Thiem: “Maybe not this year, or next year…” but eventually.