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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Dominic Thiem: '2018 is the time' for younger generation to break through at the grand slams

Austrian world No 5 completes his season preparations at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi.

Dominic Thiem at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship media day at Four Seasons, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Dominic Thiem at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship media day at Four Seasons, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Men’s tennis is at an interesting juncture. For so long dominated by a select group of players, often referred to as the “Big Four” comprising Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, their iron-like grip is starting to loosen ever so slightly.

On the surface it appears business as usual: Nadal tops the rankings and possesses two grand slam titles, while Federer sits one place behind and holds the other two. Not to mention both Djokovic and Murray missed large chunks of the season with injury and therefore couldn’t claim their share of the prizes.

Yet that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. From mid-May onwards – specifically the Rome Masters – it was the younger generation that presided over the ATP Tour’s biggest three-set titles.

German 20-year-old Alexander Zverev brushed aside two of the old guard in Djokovic and Federer to win successive Masters 1000 titles in the Italian capital and Montreal. Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov, 26, took home the next Masters trophy, in Cincinnati, defeating 22-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios in the final.

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Federer and Nadal reunited for the Shanghai Masters final in October, but that proved their last hurrah for 2017. American Jock Sock, 25, was victorious in the Paris Masters before Dimitrov rounded off the season by clinching the ATP Finals title.

No surprise that the younger, fresher legs were able to sustain the long, arduous tennis season. By comparison, Nadal’s body started to break down in the final weeks, while Federer, who had already played a selective season, limped over the line.

The next generation may still be waiting to grate-crash the “Big Four” at grand slam tournaments, but they are certainly closing in.

It begs the question: who from the emerging group of players will first break through and disrupt the status quo?

Among those leading the charge is Dominic Thiem, the world No 5 from Austria and arguably the second-best claycourt player in the world.

After a year that saw the established elite pushed harder by the upstarts than ever before, Thiem believes the time has arrived for the next generation to move up to the same level.

“I think we should. We did it already at the Masters 1000s and also other tournaments,” Thiem said yesterday at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship media day at the Four Seasons Hotel, Abu Dhabi.

“But at the majors, Roger and Rafa were just too strong. This year we just had to accept that. But at one point we have to make the breakthrough and I think 2018 is time for it.”

Thiem is already among the elite on one surface. His problem though, the No 1 clay-courter is as close to invincible as it gets on a tennis court, making it near-impossible, for now at least, to win the French Open.

The key phrase being “close to” as Thiem was the only player in 2017 to defeat Nadal on the red dust when he comfortably dispatched the Spaniard in the Rome quarter-finals.

“He is by far the best player ever on the surface and I beat him during his peak,” Thiem said.

“It was probably the best match of my year but still, to know that I can beat somebody in his best shape on his best surface, for sure gives me a little bit of confidence.”

That confidence is going to come in useful in 2018 when Thiem sets about solidifying his place in the top five while pursuing trophies and grand slam glory.

A host of players previously ranked higher than Thiem are making their way back from various injury absences, most notably 12-time major winner – and potential final opponent in Abu Dhabi this week – Djokovic, and former world No 1 Murray. Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, and Milos Raonic are nearing returns, too.

“For sure it’s going to be tougher to stay in the top 10 than it was to get there last year,” he said. “But we all had a good year, and for them it’s not going to be easy.

“Some of them were out for a long time. Maybe Novak, but I don’t think anybody else will make the same sort of comeback that Roger and Rafa did. It’s too tough, so I think everybody can look forward to a great and tense start of the season.”

Thiem will complete his off-season preparations at Zayed Sports City’s International Tennis Stadium, with the tournament getting under way today. As one of the two top seeds, alongside Djokovic, Thiem will not be in action until tomorrow’s semi-finals.

However his debut in the UAE capital goes, Thiem has prepared himself as best as possible for 2018.

“The off-season was good – no injuries, no problems. I worked a lot on fitness and a few things when there is no time during the year. I think, and I hope, I am ready for the new season.”