Dominic Thiem Makes a Habit of Winning

Dominic Thiem Makes a Habit of Winning

LONDON — Dominic Thiem will not admit to being superstitious. He said his 5-year-old habit of twirling the tennis ball around in his fingers before every serve is no different than Alexander Zverev tugging at his shirt in between points or Rafael Nadal lining up his bottles in perfect order beside his chair. It is simply part of his routine.

“I think it’s not possible anymore that I don’t do it because it’s so much in my system, so automatic that I do it before every single serve,” Thiem said. “It can be very rough outside on the court, very lonely, very long. So, it’s nice to have some little things which are really automatic and which are always working.”

Thiem, a 26-year-old Austrian, has acquired a more important habit this season: winning. He entered this week’s ATP Finals having won 13 of his last 15 matches, including tournament titles in Beijing and Vienna. He is tied with Novak Djokovic with a tour-leading five titles this year, including his first Masters 1000, which he claimed after beating Roger Federer at Indian Wells in March. He also reached his second consecutive French Open final, again losing to Nadal, a 12-time champion.

Ranked fifth, Thiem advanced to the semifinals of the elite year-end ATP Finals for the first time in four tries, going 2-1 in group play with victories over Federer and Djokovic. On Saturday, he will face No. 7 Alexander Zverev, the defending champion. Third-ranked Federer and No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas will meet in the other semifinal.

The matchups are a triumph for the younger generation in men’s tennis in their season-long battle for supremacy against the so-called Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Nadal, who overtook Djokovic for the year-end No. 1 ranking this week, went 2-1 in group play but did not reach the semifinals because he lost more sets than Zverev did.

Thiem has long been considered a viable fourth wheel behind the Big Three. He is in good company, alongside Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Zverev, Grigor Dmitrov and this year’s U.S. Open finalist, Daniil Medvedev, all of whom have had a stint at No. 4 within the last several years.

Thiem has had a virus off and on all year that forced him to pull out of several tournaments and cost him a first-round loss to 87th-ranked Thomas Fabbiano at the United States Open. But arriving in London, Thiem had beaten six of the other seven ATP Finals qualifiers this year, including Nadal and Medvedev to win Barcelona, Djokovic at Roland Garros, Tsitsipas in Beijing, and Matteo Berrettini en route to the title in Vienna. Thiem has not played Zverev since beating him in the quarterfinals at the 2018 French Open.

Thiem’s ascendant play has not gone unnoticed.

“I know he can play in a high level, but he was just phenomenal,” said Djokovic, who lost to Thiem, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (5), on Tuesday and missed out on a spot in the semifinals by falling to Federer in straight sets on Thursday. “I don’t think I’ve experienced too many matches where my opponent just goes for every single shot. He was literally smacking the ball as hard as he can and they were going in.”

Thiem credited some of his improvement this year to replacing his longtime coach, Günter Bresnik, with the former tour player Nicolás Massú. He has also drawn inspiration from his girlfriend, Kristina Mladenovic, who led France to its first Fed Cup in 16 years in Perth, Australia, last weekend.

But Thiem still has not had much success at Grand Slam tournaments outside of the French Open. The last Austrian to win a major singles title was the former No. 1 Thomas Muster, who captured the French Open in 1995. Thiem recently chose Muster to serve as Austria’s captain in the new ATP Cup in Australia in January.

“It’s only a question of time until he wins a Grand Slam,” Muster told reporters in London. “I’ve seen improvements in the last few weeks, and the way he is playing the game is heading north.”

Another reason Thiem feels so confident on court these days, he said, is because he is so comfortable off it. When not playing, Thiem retreats to his lake home in Neusiedl am See, a tiny lakeside town of about 8,000 that straddles the border of Austria and Hungary.

“In this town not too much happens,” Thiem said with a chuckle. “It’s nice, and whenever I go there it feels like home, and that’s the way home should be.”

Thiem has also supported local tournaments; this year he won titles in Kitzbühel and Vienna for the first time.

Barbara Schett, a former top Austrian player on the WTA Tour, said that it was significant that Thiem had not moved away from his homeland.

“He’s very Austrian,” said Schett, now a television commentator. “He pays his 50 percent taxes. He’s very connected. Muster played at a time when tennis was bigger in Austria and he was a superstar. He was also polarizing in that some loved him and some didn’t. But everyone loves Domi.

Thiem is unfazed by the adoration from his fellow Austrians and tennis fans worldwide.

“I’m glad that most Austrians like me,” said Thiem, who admitted that he has never seen “The Sound of Music,” the iconic movie filmed in Salzburg, Austria. “I think the biggest reason is that I stay completely the person I always was. I go to places I’ve always been to because I don’t think I should avoid the public or restaurants because I’m a famous tennis player. If I act normal and live my normal life, then people will treat me normal.”

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