London: Tennis players are supposed to be tough cookies — mentally resilient with a blend of physical fitness to hang in there under most testing circumstances.
Even then, you will not come across many who has gone through years of training to become a professional athlete and is then required to put himself through compulsory military service.
Gunter, he did it with me for a very young age and it was his plan that I get used to this because the Tour is very hard. You have to take a lot, and he was preparing me.
Four years ago, Dominic Thiem had to undergo four weeks of mandatory national service while continuing to play on the Tour simply because all Austrians are required to put in six months of mandatory service in the military.
Then 21, Thiem was ranked No. 39, and the Austrian Defence Minister made an exemption and allowed the fast-rising star to compete in tournaments while also training with the military for a truncated four-week period.
Thiem returned on the Tour in early 2015, only to crash to successive opening round losses in Auckland and the Australian Open.
However, it is the long-term benefits that the 25-year-old Thiem is now reaping as he remains among a handful of young guns who are poised to take over from the golden generation of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
Growing up, Thiem’s long-time coach Gunter Bresnik was a disciplinarian to the core. Bresnik would take his young protégé to their training centre near Vienna on Saturdays and Sundays for additional sessions while focusing all the time on hard work and a self-belief alongside his superlative ability to be better than the rest.
One of the much-spoken moments of the Nitto ATP Finals last year was the arrival of Thiem at The O2 Arena with just his slippers in a bold attempt to acclimatise his feet to the London cold. He later explained that this was part of his strategy and work ethic in “getting tough” for battles ahead.
After all these years, Thiem’s accumulated work ethic is being noticed on and off the court. During 2018 alone, Thiem has gone on to lead all players by reaching the quarter-finals or better at 14 tournaments. At 25, and already making his third successive appearance at The O2 Arena, Thiem has won three titles while advancing to his first Grand Slam final at Roland Garros [where he lost to Rafael Nadal], and also appearing in his second ATP Masters 1000 final at Madrid.
Federer, who has lost two of his three matches against Thiem this year, had been all praise for the young Austrian’s durability and consistency. But Thiem is not someone who is taken in by what is happening around him. “I know that it’s necessary, and I don’t know something else,” Thiem said of his strenuous schedule.
“Gunter, he did it with me for a very young age and it was his plan that I get used to this because the Tour is very hard. You have to take a lot, and he was preparing me from a very young age. Now, it’s at a point where I don’t know anything else. Working hard is normal for me,” he added.
Thiem recognises that opportunities will come as the older generation fades out, but he wants to be able to improve himself to the point where he can compete with the top brass while they’re still playing their best.
“Every year, this tournament gets super tough as it is such a unique tournament. I have to be 100 per cent from the first point onwards or else I won’t have a chance against these top-10 guys. It really doesn’t matter which group you are in. It is really, really difficult against everybody,” Thiem admitted.