Woodbridge: Thiem ready to challenge Big Three

  • Matt Trollope

There are two increasingly reported statistics in men’s tennis. 

One is that no active player under the age of 30 has won a Grand Slam singles title. The second is that no male player, other than Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, has won a major trophy since 2016.

However, signs have emerged that this could change. Former player turned tennis analyst Todd Woodbridge certainly thinks so. 

“I think this Australian Open, maybe more than any I’ve looked at over the last five years or so, is open for one of these (younger) guys,” said Woodbridge, currently a co-host of Channel Nine’s Cross Court tennis program. 

“For the first time, the back half of this year, we saw a mentality, pretty much brought by Daniil Medvedev, then Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas, that says: 'I’m not scared of the Big Three any more.'

“And I think that makes for an exciting AO2020.”

These younger players and several others – a group of next-generation talents expected to eventually unseat Nadal, Djokovic and Federer from their positions in the top three, and as owners of the game’s most prestigious silverware – have threatened to take the game by storm before. Except they they are yet to.

We’ve seen Thiem and Tsitsipas beat Nadal in Madrid, only for the Spaniard to rule at Roland Garros. We’ve seen Karen Khachanov and Alexander Zverev beat Djokovic at the Paris Masters and ATP Finals respectively, only for Djokovic to win the Australian Open two months later. We’ve seen Zverev beat Federer at the Hopman Cup, only for the Swiss to rebound and win at Melbourne Park.

But in the back half of 2019, winds of change have blown more strongly, and persistently. 

Medvedev stretched Nadal to five thrilling sets in the US Open final, the closest a young player has ever come to ousting a member of the Big Three in a major final. A few weeks later, Tsitsipas stunned Djokovic and Zverev overpowered Federer in the Shanghai Masters quarterfinals. A similar thing happened in London at the ATP Finals; Thiem ousted Djokovic and Zverev trounced Nadal, losses preventing either of the world’s top two players from advancing to the semifinals. In the last four, Tsitsipas beat Federer to set up a final against Thiem, who had earlier beaten Federer in the group stages.

“Post-US Open there’s been a real turnaround,” Woodbridge observed. 

“You might lose once and you can sweep that one away and kind of hide it under the carpet. But you can’t hide two or three losses – they start to become mental. First, where you don’t believe as much as a top player, and second, the player that’s coming at them truly believes they can beat them. 

“That’s where we’re at with the game right now – we’re at a turning point.”

Woodbridge points to several factors contributing to the shift.

Age has become an inescapable factor for the Big Three, while players like Thiem (26), Medvedev (23) and Tsitsipas (21) are entering their physical prime.

“I actually think this is an exciting little period coming, because none of the Big Three want to relinquish their position, that is very obvious. 

“But the young ones are ready to push them on.”

Woodbridge believes Thiem, Medvedev and Tsitsipas are the players best placed to wrench the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup from Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, who have combined to win 13 of the past 14 Australian Opens. 

Stan Wawrinka was the last non-Big Three champion, in 2014. 

Thiem, especially, seems to have positioned himself as the most likely candidate for success, given his breakthrough on hard courts in 2019.

After beating Federer to win the Indian Wells title in March, he triumphed on the quicker hard courts of Beijing and then won the indoor hard court title in Vienna, before his run to the final in London on a similar surface.

It bodes well for January, where the courts in Melbourne player similarly medium-fast.

“You have to look at Thiem. The physicality in his body is fantastic. He’s just ripping the ball,” Woodbridge said. 

“He obviously played brilliantly at the end of the year in the ATP Finals. He didn’t win the final, but I think he’s the one who’s ready to win a Slam, because of that.

“I always felt he was a great ball striker, but was not necessarily playing great tennis – his tactical prowess and awareness, his intelligence on the court, was not as good as it should have been. He’s now starting to show us a little more of that; he’s now hitting to set up to dominate with a power shot.

“He’s now controlling the court as well, and ever so slightly, we’re starting to see him finish more points at net. The confidence is starting to build in that respect as well. 

“His game has evolved to beat Federer, he has managed to stay with Rafa, and if you can penetrate Novak’s defences and have him lose confidence in his moving, then you can beat him.

“He’s devised the game to beat the Big Three, and done it with power and precision.”