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By Chris Oddo | Wednesday June 7, 2017

Dominic Thiem

Dominic Thiem announced himself in a big way with his takedown of Novak Djokovic on Wednesday in Paris. Can he follow through?

Photo Source: Adam Pretty/Getty

We’ve seen plenty of posturing among the next generation of tennis stars over the last few years, but two steps forward have typically been followed by at least one back—and sometimes more. It happened just two weeks ago when Dominic Thiem, surely the best clay-courter in the world that has yet to turn 30, followed up a drubbing of King of Clay Rafael Nadal by getting totally annihilated by Novak Djokovic in the Rome semifinals.

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We’ve also seen similar moves from the likes of Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev, Borna Coric and even Karen Khachanov. It’s a tough time to be a rising star in the ATP. All possess great promise, and all need finishing on their frames and in their minds, but none of them are as far along as Thiem is on his beloved red clay.

That became apparent, and in this writer’s mind official, on Wednesday as Thiem tore into Djokovic with every essence of his beastly being to defeat the defending Roland Garros champion, 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-0.

Much has been made and will continue to be made about Djokovic’s lack of fire at the moment as well as his inability to reclaim the dominion that he lorded over for the better part of the four previous ATP seasons.

But please consider this stunning yet obvious fact: Djokovic was up against a physically superior player that executed at the highest level possible on Wednesday. Even if he hadn’t lost heart in the third set, it surely would have been ripped out by the Austrian.

He may be just 23 years old, but today’s performance gave every indication that Thiem is a player that has stepped out of his formative years on a clay court and right into his prime. Mark this moment, for when they dig up the fossils beneath Court Philippe Chatrier centuries from now, we will likely see the bones of the Big Four, all chewed on by Thiem, the heir apparent to the clay-court empire ruled by Rafael Nadal for the last decade-plus.

Don’t get me wrong, Nadal most certainly can produce one last brilliant chapter to what will end up being the greatest clay-court story ever written. He may defeat Thiem and go on to win his 10th Roland Garros title, but with a force like Thiem coming full speed ahead, the Spaniard’s days are numbered as the game’s premier clay-courter.

We knew it would come someday.

Time grinds all great clay-courters into the red brick of Chatrier’s top dressing, and there’s no shame in that.

This Roland Garros marked the first time that all four members of the Big Four were thirtysomethings at a Grand Slam. One of the members (a certain 18-time major champion that is soon to turn 36) is so old that he wouldn’t even dare risk his health on the terre battue—more proof that while tennis is an older man’s game in this era, clay court titles are won with vitality and snap, remarkable recoveries and the searing topspin that only a twenty something could provide with jaw-dropping regularity.

Nadal, at 31, has everything he needs to win this title, including nine previous crowns to buoy his confidence, but in a lot of ways he’ll be facing a right-handed version of what he used to be on the clay. An unfathomable beast that can make spines ripple with his perpetual tattooing of the ball.

An ornery pit bull that knows not of the scariness of his own strength. Thiem's forehands snap like the jaws of an alligator snaring for a flamingo on a muddy Florida riverbank. He is gentle in speech, but violent in tennis, a veritable topspin factory that whips a tennis ball into a frenzy and makes it hell to handle.

Sounds a lot like Nadal in his heyday, because it is. They are very different stylistically, but both possess the same magnetic humility and the same singular sense of purpose on the tennis court.

On Wednesday Thiem didn’t just show that he was a physical phenom though. He also showed that he has an innate understanding of how to problem solve. He stepped in and completely altered his return contact point against Djokovic compared to what it was when he faced the Serb at Rome, and that in and of itself was revelatory. Even better was how well the Austrian executed within this new realm. He stuck returns and never allowed Djokovic to take tactical, territorial control of the points.

There is still a lot of ground to cover for Thiem as he develops his career. He could be far better at closing out points at the net. Experience will make him better and so will better management of his schedule and time on court. Despite his adjustments against Djokovic he could still improve his court positioning to make him more dimensional and a more difficult player to strategize against.

But make no mistake about it, whether Thiem goes on to win this title or not, he’s arrived. His window to win majors, at least on clay, is officially open. And just like the clay gurus who have come before him, it will be up to him to storm through and claim his dominion.


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