FLUSHING MEADOWS— Count me right up there among the most ardent admirers of Dominic Thiem in my profession. This earnest Austrian is a first rate professional, giving the game everything he has, doing everything in his power to improve, trying to make the most of himself across the board as a tennis player with large dreams and deep aspirations. Thiem has made significant strides across the last couple of seasons in his trade, finishing 2015 stationed at No. 20 in the world, concluding 2016 at a lofty No. 8, making inroads all the while. Last year, he reached his first major semifinal at Roland Garros, losing to Novak Djokovic on that occasion. This past spring, he upended Djokovic to make it to another penultimate round in Paris, falling this time against a top of the line Rafael Nadal.
And yet, it is not as if everything has been on the upswing for this young man who turns 24 tomorrow. His 2017 campaign has been littered with disappointments as well as loaded with wins. To be sure, he won the Rio Open, an ATP World Tour 500 event. He was runner-up to Nadal in Barcelona and Madrid, and a semifinalist in Rome, where he surprised Nadal before losing to Djokovic. But since losing to Tomas Berdych in the round of 16 at Wimbledon, Thiem has not performed with the authority one would expect from a man of his stature. On the hard courts leading up to the U.S. Open, he was beaten by Kevin Anderson in the round of 16 at Washington. He lost to Diego Schwartzman in the round of 32 of Montreal after a first round bye. And then, most surprising of all, he was ousted by David Ferrer in the quarterfinals of Cincinnati.
Thiem knows full well that he has to start doing much better than that. He did have a respectable 41-19 match record for the season prior to the U.S. Open, but he is still ranked at No. 8 in the world. The last thing Thiem wants to do is to stand still at this stage of his career. He needs to make his move soon, to achieve the kind of progress he should at this time in his life, to demonstrate unequivocally that he is ready to step forward substantially and make his presence known in the latter stages of majors on a regular basis.
I watched him today as he confronted Adrian Mannarino in the temporary Louis Armstrong Court here at the Open. Thiem's contest with the left-handed Frenchman was a third round encounter, and he was in some difficulty early on. The Austrian lost his serve in the opening game of the match and Mannarino was taking charge in many ways, setting the tempo, keeping Thiem off balance, getting to the net with unmistakable effectiveness. The left-handed Frenchman was slicing his approaches remarkably low and moving forward effortlessly to put away volleys. Thiem was on his heels, befuddled somewhat by what was being thrown at him, dazed to a degree by the nature of Mannarino's methodology. Mannarino also was holding his own from the baseline with his compact backswings and fine ball control, fending off the heavy topspin artillery of Thiem.
Thiem lost his serve in the opening game of the match after a couple of deuces and Mannarino was off and running. The southpaw kept his nose in front for the most of the set by sticking assiduously to his game plan, waiting patiently for openings to come forward, probing to find ways to outmaneuver his adversary, making certain to apply pressure with outstanding transitional tennis. Thiem was searching in vain for solutions to the considerable problems he faced, but not until the end of the set, just in the nick of time, did he find any answers. Mannarino led 5-3 but Thiem calmly held on at 15 in the ninth game.
Serving for the set at 5-4, Mannarino was stymied by a Thiem who was clearly elevating his game at a propitious moment. Mannarino led 30-15 but Thiem sent a deep backhand crosscourt to draw an error from the Frenchman on the run. Thiem took control of the next point with a backhand down the line. Mannarino got that shot back but Thiem stepped in and pounded a trademark forehand, forcing his opponent into an error. Down 30-40, Mannarino ventured to the net but was caught off guard by a clever chipped backhand pass on the stretch from Thiem. Going down the line, Mannarino punched a forehand volley wide.
Thiem had broken back for 5-5. He held on and then went to work in full pursuit of another break. A scintillating backhand passing shot from the Austrian gave him double set point and he sealed it immediately by forcing another mistake from Mannarino. Thiem had recouped boldly to win the set on a run of four consecutive games. Not only had he broken serve but he essentially had broken the spirit of Mannarino, who never really knew what hit him. In one instant he had seemed to be thoroughly in control of the set but a moment later he had lost it to a man who raised his game when it mattered and permanently altered the complexion of the match.
Thiem unrelentingly took over. He broke for 2-0 in the second set with a high trajectory forehand drawing a miss-hit backhand from Mannarino. The Austrian made that break count, holding on for the rest of the set, serving it out at love in the ninth game. The way he played right there at 5-3 was indicative of how Thiem had found his confidence and established his game as unstoppable. He started with a wide serve that set up a forehand down the line winner, went to 30-0 with a 94 MPH first serve kicker eliciting an errant forehand return from Mannarino, advanced to 40-0 with an ace and held at love with a well executed backhand slice down the line that Mannarino could not handle. Set to Thiem, 6-3. Convincing stuff indeed.
It was apparent now that Thiem would move inexorably to victory, and he did just that. Thiem's deep backhand down the line return at break point in the first game of the third set was too much for Mannarino. In the second game, Thiem thrice found himself break point down but he erased them all with conviction and held on with another smart first serve kicker wide to the forehand in the ad court. Mannarino missed another awkward forehand return off that high bounding delivery. Thiem kept holding on across the rest of the set. With Mannarino serving at 3-5, the Austrian had a match point but missed a difficult running forehand. Mannarino held on. But Thiem was unswayed by that stand. He was taken to deuce twice in the following game but refused to waver despite bungling a forehand volley on his second match point.
Thiem triumphed 7-5, 6-3, 6-4 to set up a riveting fourth round appointment against none other than 2009 U.S. Open victor Juan Martin Del Potro. I can't wait for that one to unfold. Del Potro rolled past No. 11 seed Roberto Bautista Agut and is in sparkling form. Del Potro and Thiem have met in head to head competition twice, with Del Potro winning both contests. But the second one was here in the same round last year, and Thiem had to retire injured when he was down a set and 3-2. So this will be a critical test for both men as they strive for a place in the quarterfinals. Outside of Roland Garros, Thiem has never been beyond the round of 16 at a major. He needs to topple a player of Del Potro's stature at the last Grand Slam event of 2017 to give himself a larger sense of who he is and what he could become. Thiem must meet this moment with deep resolve, complete clarity of purpose and a growing awareness of what it takes to win big matches. Win or lose, he will need to treat this match like a final and then accept the outcome, no matter what it is.