Why you should care

Because we all love watching tennis players who break away from the pack.

Turns out there is an “I” in Thiem (pronounced “team”) after all. Dominic Thiem, Austria’s new tennis hope, is climbing the ranks faster than even the experts expected.

Cracking the ATP Top 100, Thiem joined the roster of the world’s best tennis players in February when he was 20, the youngest of the pack. And it took just three months to become the best in Austria and to beat No. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka at a tournament in Madrid.

His ascent was not completely unforeseen. After all, he’s the eldest son of two tennis coaches who raised him in the small town of Wiener Neustadt, about 30 miles outside Vienna. He started hitting balloons with a flyswatter as soon as he could walk.

What’s really great about Thiem are the fantastically honest posts he writes after every match. He is the world’s sweetest tennis boy.

— Rowan French

“I can’t remember a time in my life when I was not playing tennis,” Thiem tells OZY. It seems to be a family obsession: Moritz, 12, is following in his older brother’s footsteps and already ranked sixth nationally in his age group.

It’s hard not to instantly take to the humble athlete, who has been posting updates in both German and English at the request of his followers on Twitter and Facebook. He’s even been known to give opponents their due. “He played too fast and too good for me,” Thiem admits in a typical post-match report.

Thiem’s presence on social media is such that New Zealand-based comic artist Rowan French created a comic strip based on his online posts.

The kid is an angel, and he’s got game, too!

— Rowan French

“He is a young kid with a ton of talent,” says French. “But what’s really great about Thiem are the fantastically honest posts he writes after every match. He is the world’s sweetest tennis boy. The kid is an angel, and he’s got game, too!”

But online savvy won’t propel him to the top 10 in professional tennis.

Thiem’s coach, former Davis Cup captain Günter Bresnik — who has trained Boris Becker and Pat McEnroe — started working with Dominic when he was just 9 years old. Bresnik claims his protégé has what it takes to become one of the sport’s best players, referring to him last year as “the best 19-year-old tennis player to walk the Earth at the moment.”

Dominic Thiem and Stanislas Wawrinka shake hands across a tennis court.

Austrian tennis player Dominic Thiem (L) shakes hands with Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka, May 2014. Dominic Thiem won 1-6, 6-2 and 6-4.

Chief among Thiem’s strengths is a willingness to forfeit everything to improve his skills. “Günter turned my game upside-down, even though I was already the best player in the country in my age group,” Thiem remembers. “It was a crazy-tough time, but the most important time in my career.”

In the period between 2010 and 2013, Thiem battled a number of health problems – from infections to a vicious intestinal virus — but he used the time to refocus and hone his technique. Known for an aggressive style of play and a merciless one-handed backhand, he has attracted the attention of talent scouts and former court legends.

His backhand down-the-line is phenomenal. I’m sure he’ll go on to enter the top 10.

— Ivan Lendl

Ivan Lendl has raved about Thiem to Austrian tabloid Kronen Zeitung: “His backhand down-the-line is phenomenal. I’m sure he’ll go on to enter the top 10.”

To get there, Thiem knows he has plenty of work to do. “I still have a long way to go and I have to work very hard — especially on my footwork.” Bresnik does not doubt that he’s got the determination and stamina to go the distance. “In the 11 years that I’ve been training him, not once did he ask how much longer the practice was going to last,” he marvels. “Dominic’s biggest talent is that he’s always ready to work.”

The trade-off is that Thiem doesn’t have much time for old friends. If there’s downtime, he hangs out with other up-and-coming players at tournaments. “You just lose the regular friends somewhere along the way,” he says.

“Professional tennis players today need to operate on an incredibly high fitness level. That’s why it’s so hard for the young players to break into the top ranks, because to achieve that level, it takes many years of intense training,” Melzer cautioned. But Thiem has also gained new friends, among them his idol, Jürgen Melzer, among the best Austrian players of all time. In a joint interview for Red Bull magazine, Melzer told Thiem to be patient and that the best is yet to come, while warning the young player of the rigors of the sport.

Coach Bresnik agrees. “It’s just like nobody runs marathons professionally at age 22. We need to be more patient with the young players than we used to be with my generation. We need to give him time. I know that he can play much better than he did so far. He’s going to move up in the rankings quite far.”

Which is precisely what Thiem has set his sights on. Currently ranked No. 57, he beat Paul-Henri Mathieu in the first round of the French Open last month, earning him the chance to play against superstar Rafael Nadal, an experience Thiem called a “mega honor.”

Nadal dominated, but he was impressed enough by the young Austrian to suggest there’s a looming changing of the guard in tennis’s top ranks.

“I think that our generation is now on the way out,” Nadal said.

As he prepared to leave Paris following the French Open, Thiem published a post about his next Grand Slam tournament. “Tomorrow off to London. With the right shoes in my suitcase. Mega looking forward to playing on grass.”

Tennis fans should keep their eyes out for Thiem in this summer’s tournaments. Wimbledon gets under way on June 23, followed by the U.S. Open in late August.

Thiem will have his eye on the ball — while the world’s top 10 players will be watching to see if the young Austrian can close in on them.

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