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Dominic Thiem: Austria's Iron Man

Dominic Thiem has qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals for a second successive year. As Mike Dickson of The Daily Mail writes, the Austrian is known for being the hardest working man in tennis.

There is one thing you can be sure of with Dominic Thiem this week – nobody in the eight-man field has worked harder than him to make it to the Nitto ATP Finals.

While rising up the Emirates ATP Rankings, the 24-year-old Austrian has gained a reputation for being one of the Stakhanovites of the ATP World Tour – the suggestion being he’s as dedicated and productive as the worker once mythologised by the former Soviet Union for his industry. If there is a significant tournament on, you will usually find Thiem as one of its participants. He loves to play, and is certainly not a disciple of the trend among some of the elite who lean towards a ‘less is more’ philosophy.

This is, after all, someone who found the time to feature in 31 separate events in 2015, a year that ended with him also doing his compulsory national service in his homeland. Even Austria’s leading athletes – and he is now definitely one of those – are not spared the duty, and while there was some leeway given to him he still managed to get it done while building his ranking up.

There will be very few players on the ATP World Tour who know how to clean and reload a rifle like the man from the small market town of Lichtenwörth, in the rural far east of the country. And there also won’t be too many who know how to consistently reload and fire off their single-handed backhand like he does, a shot which has become his trademark. That said, there is nothing brusque or aggressive in the calm demeanour of Thiem, who is not the showy type or someone desperate for attention. But there can be little doubt that when the phenomenal generation of 30-somethings finally fades away, Thiem is likely to be one of those taking centre stage.

Pronounced ‘Team’, Thiem is what we call the real deal, as he showed when beating the defending champion Novak Djokovic to make the semi-finals of Roland Garros for a second year in a row. And he managed to do it while saddled with expectations that were much heavier than before.

Already, Thiem has established himself as Austria’s best player since Thomas Muster, a former No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, and a contrastingly in-your-face character. Perhaps they also differ in their approaches to surfaces. Muster was most at home on clay, and that surface has so far yielded the best results for Thiem. But there seems every likelihood Thiem will also achieve much on other surfaces – in 2016, he won a hard-court title in Acapulco as well as a grass-court tournament in Stuttgart.

That ability to prosper on all surfaces is the design of his long-time coach Gunter Bresnik, whose name first became familiar through the work he did with a young Boris Becker in a career that has seen him work with more than 20 leading players. A fellow Austrian, Bresnik is known for being a tough taskmaster, and some of his training techniques involve sending Thiem on long runs in the woods or mountains with weights attached to him.

Both of Thiem’s parents are tennis coaches, and he has known Bresnik since early childhood as his father went to work at Bresnik’s academy in Vienna. Bresnik took full charge before Thiem became a teenager, and soon made the young player switch from a double-handed backhand to a single-hander. That’s the shot that for years had been predicted to die out in the professional game, so there’s something reassuring about its continued existence at the top of the ATP World Tour.

While rising up the Emirates ATP Rankings, Thiem hasn’t completely overlooked other aspects of his life, and enjoys reading Scandinavian crime novels. But his main passion is football, and Chelsea in particular. During last year’s season finale, his first, he was delighted to meet Jose Mourinho, a former manager at Stamford Bridge, and an ardent tennis fan. He has been known to walk around the locker room with a Chelsea shirt with ‘Thieminho’ on the back. The Austrian is also notable for doing all his own social media, rather than leaving it in the hands of others.

Yet it is tennis which has been his life’s work, and which has made his name. This season he has been hard at work again, meeting with consistent success on the clay above all, both in South America, where he won the title in Rio de Janeiro, and also in Europe, where he beat Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals of the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 in Rome. But the remarkable Nadal proved to be a roadblock at other tournaments. Thiem was a finalist in Barcelona and also at the Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid, only to run into the Spaniard on both occasions. And when he made the last four at Roland Garros, Nadal stopped him again.

Thiem is no different from many other players who have advanced up the Emirates ATP Rankings, only to find that the golden generation won’t yield to those coming up below. Yet in a sport which sees champions getting older, time is very much on Thiem’s side, and when the opportunities inevitably arise he is likely to be in prime position to take advantage.