April 4, 2020
At the US Open last year, former champion Andy Roddick was talking about surprise surprise, the “Big Three” in men’s tennis. At that point, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer had shared the last 11 Grand Slam titles and won 54 of the last 65 major tournaments. Make that the last 13 and 56 of the last 67 now. He also mentioned one player in particular who had been in the last two French Open finals, and the semi-final in 2017.
“[Dominic] Thiem, he's a three-time French Open winner if it's not for that guy named Rafa," Roddick said. “I feel like those guys have taken away an entire generation of Grand Slam winners.” If it was not for a guy named Novak at Melbourne as well, Thiem may have by this point been a four-time Grand Slam champion. But sport is not made of what-ifs, it is cut throat in nature and you are not a winner until you get over that line.
But the Austrian Thiem is one of the very few players who looks incredibly likely to make that all awaited breakthrough while the three greats are still active. His first major final ended in a straight sets thrashing to Nadal in Paris, while his last final ended in an agonising five set defeat to Djokovic in Melbourne. With each final he has played, Thiem has shown a marked improvement but the trophy has eluded his grasp.
In an alternate universe, Thiem would now be preparing to play tournaments on the clay where he has had the most success. He was already being primed as one of the favourites for the French Open crown like he has been for the last few years. But is there something he needs to do when Grand Slam tennis does return? Are there subtle changes or additions he can include in his game to write his name in the Grand Slam history books?
For the purpose of this analysis, I have looked at the data from every Grand Slam final from 2010 till the most recent Grand Slam final in Australia this year. The reason I have looked at this time span is because it is the decade dominated by Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. But also, it gives enough of a recent timespan to see how to be successful on the biggest stage and whether there are any significant trends that can be followed.
“You are only as good as your second serve.” One of the oldest adages in tennis has probably dwindled in the frequency it is said in recent years, but many experts still believe this quote holds true. Unsurprisingly, this has shown in the major finals since 2010. Of the 41 major finals since the start of 2010, the champion has won on average 57.19% of points on their second serve. The losing finalist has averaged 43.3% in that statistic so it shows a relatively big gap between the winner and loser.
The reliability needed in second serve points won is an obvious suggestion for players, but for Thiem it is very crucial to his chances in a major final. In his first final at the French Open in 2018, Thiem won just 34.9% of the points on his second serve. In the three finals he has played, he has not won more than a maximum of 50% of points on his second serve. It seems imperative for the Austrian to make sure his second serve is constantly improving for the next time he makes a major final.
Alongside the second serve, it is also interesting to look at where serves are being directed in major finals. Both the winner and loser are almost identical in the percentage of wide serves, body serves and serves down the tee they hit. But there are surprisingly few body serves being used by both the winner and loser in a Grand Slam final, 21% and 20% respectively. Nadal is one of the finest exponents of the body serve in the game and often uses it to surprise his opponents. In the 2017 French Open final against Stanislas Wawrinka, Nadal hit 42% of his first and second serves to Wawrinka’s body and that paid huge dividends. Since that French Open final, the winner of the Grand Slam final has hit only 19% of the serves to their opponent’s body on average. This is something Thiem can look to exploit, especially given his body serve average has been less than 10% in the three finals he has played.
During a Live at Wimbledon interview in 2015 ahead of the semi-final between Djokovic and Richard Gasquet, seven-time major winner Mats Wilander asked fellow tennis legend John McEnroe a question. “Why is it so difficult for players to go on the court, forget everything and just go for every single shot possible?” Wilander gave an insight into his thinking about being more of a defensive player than McEnroe or the others. He said he would want to see what form his opponent was in, and if he was not in the best form, Wilander trusted himself to grind it out and let his opponent self-combust to all intensive purposes. What strategy should Thiem go for the next time he is in a major final?
Since 2010 in men’s major finals, champions have hit an average of 38.15 unforced errors per match. But the losing finalist has averaged 47.9 unforced errors in those 41 finals. This is all the while still hitting less winners than the champion. Consistency therefore seems to be the need of the day for players like Thiem. But there is a key outlier in the form of Wawrinka. The three-time Grand Slam winner has faced similar opponents in the form of Nadal and Djokovic in those finals and just went for it. He averaged 51.33 winners in those three matches and averaged 51.67 unforced errors. But the key thing here is the ratio is almost one to one and Wawrinka dominated the short rallies.
The Swiss won an average of 53% of the rallies between one and three shots against his opponents and he kept the majority of the points in the match to this length. Very rarely did a rally go past seven shots but the confidence he gained from winning those short rallies would also translate into the longer rallies. In fact, against Nadal in the 2014 Australian Open final, Wawrinka won 71% of the points that lasted 10 shots or more. But in the majority, Wawrinka dominated in rallies within six shots. Not simply hitting from the first shot, but manoeuvring the opponent initially and taking the first opening to strike.
Thiem has not fully taken advantage of the power he has immediately in the rally, especially in the last two finals he has played. He won just 38% and 46% respectively for the rallies between one and three shots in last year’s French Open final and this year’s Australian Open. The trend also carries on for the rallies between four and six shots and Thiem has to take the opportunity to win the points early. He is doing a lot better in the longer rallies and while he is naturally very good at the longer rallies, he will surely benefit from shorter rallies.
Thiem is now 26 years of age and for all the talk of a tennis player’s prime being close to 30, he seems to recognise this is a huge window of opportunity. When Grand Slam tennis does return, he will be looked as the key hope to break the triumvirate’s hold on majors. He does look like he is on the right path to break that hold. If he continues to solidify his second serve and make full use of his power, he should write his name in the Grand Slam history books.