As the tennis world came to terms with Rafael Nadal’s announcement of his absence from this year’s French Open, there was some irony in the identity of the man who directly benefited from his withdrawal.
Next in the rankings, occupying the spot left in the men’s singles draw by the great Spaniard, was Dominic Thiem.
In 2019, when Thiem lost to Nadal for the second time in a row in the Roland Garros final, it seemed inevitable that the Austrian would one day win the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
Four years later, Thiem still hasn’t won the most important trophy many thought he was destined for.
Winning his first Grand Slam title at the 2020 US Open marked the pinnacle of an enviable career that saw Thiem ranked third in the world.
Less than a year later, his journey was cut short by a wrist injury that ruled him out of the ATP Tour for 10 months and saw him fall outside the top 350 last year.
“It was difficult for me to deal with – and it was unusual – because it was the first time in a long time that I was injured,” Thiem, who returned to 91st in the rankings, told BBC Sport.
“I was in a cast for the first 10 weeks, so I couldn’t do anything anyway – and then the struggles started when I started playing again.
“It was so hard because before I got used to picking up the ball, I was used to using my wrist at full power and my whole body at full power, and then it just wasn’t possible.
“My mind wanted to play full force. The body wouldn’t allow it.”
The challenging style that led to Thiem’s success – the raw power generated by the wrist with both forehand and one-handed backhand – took its toll on his body.
Just like his desire to play as much as possible. Thiem has become known for his hectic and heavy schedule and now admits that his previous workload has contributed to the problems.
“I’ve always been lucky with my body because I pushed it almost every day when I was young,” he said.
“Because of all the punches I’ve taken so far in my career, it was inevitable that something would happen at some point.
“Now everything is fine and the body feels great.”
The road back to the top of the ATP Tour was long and arduous.
The inability to make the aggressive shot he feared made Thiem lack confidence in his technique.
Back on tour in March 2022, Thiem lost his first seven matches, and after being knocked out in the first round of the French Open last year, he admitted that nerves were “toxic” to his forehand.
Later, Thiem decided to play a few tournaments on the ATP Challenger Tour – the second tier of men’s tennis – to rebuild his confidence.
He has since won 34 of his 61 matches at all levels, using his protected injury ranking and wildcards to play in major tournaments.
Thiem’s encouraging performance in a narrow 3-6, 6-1, 7-6 (7-5) loss to Greek world number five Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Madrid Open clay court last month was particularly significant.
“My level is getting better because the start of the year wasn’t good at all,” said Thiem, who plays against Argentine world number 63 Pedro Cachin in the first round of the French Open.
“I was playing at a pretty bad level, definitely not up to the mark for a tour or top guys.
“Then things changed in Indian Wells and Miami. I started playing well and the season on clay was decent.
“The game against Tsitsipas was tight, really tight, which gave me the feeling that I could play at this level.
“I’ve been working very well and very hard for the last six weeks. I hope it pays off at Roland Garros.”
Fast approaching 30, Thiem says he no longer feels young in tennis.
However, there is no bitterness or even recognition that he has been stripped of what is generally a player’s peak years.
“I feel like all the previous years have been an incredible peak,” said Thiem, who also reached the 2020 Australian Open final in a career best year where only Novak Djokovic scored more ranking points.
“I’ve been in the top 10 for five years in a row, which is much more than I expected or hoped for in my career.
“But I had the impression that no athlete – or hardly any athlete – goes through a long career without serious injury.
“Even when there were some setbacks in the recovery process, I felt I was handling it quite well.
“That’s one thing I’ve learned all this time: if you can’t change something, the best thing is to accept it and let it go. It’s the healthiest way to digest it.”
Following his US Open triumph, Thiem decided to take two months off the tour to have a “little reset” due to the physical and emotional impact of finally winning the prize he had been fighting for almost his entire life.
This gave me more time to pursue interests outside of tennis.
He is close to working to protect the environment, including reducing plastic pollution and protecting bees.
Long walks with his dog Elon – named after multi-billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk – are one of his favorite ways to enjoy nature and shut off the world. He also introduced a line of trendy sunglasses.
But since he started playing tennis at the age of six and his parents were coaches, he says his passion for the sport has never waned.
“The love for tennis never died – it was just covered with thoughts in my head that weren’t easy,” he said.
“But deep down, the love for tennis has always been and always will be, I’m 100% sure of that.
“Now I have a pretty clear goal in mind, which is to reach the highest level in tennis.
“I definitely saw that it was possible. This is a clear goal I have for the future – to reach the next peak.”