May 25, 2020

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Thiem helps juniors at home, stands firm on relief stance

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World No. 3 Dominic Thiem was dragged through the online mud some after his straight-talk stance on contributing to the financial relief for the low-ranked players on the ITF Tour.

His words – which came out sounding more entitled than they needed to and surely more harsh than intended – resulted in plenty of stories, blog posts, opinions and Twitter comments.

They also inspired a video by Algeria’s Ines Ibbou, No. 620 in the WTA Tour rankings, that hit a lot people right in the feels.

But in an story published Tuesday in the French daily sports newspaper L’Équipe, written by Quentin Moynet, Thiem didn’t back down from a stance he said was borne of personal experience on the ITF circuit.

“The thing is that nobody really read the whole interview I gave, (just) all the headlines which every newspaper and every magazine wrote. That was the first thing that was wrong there. If everyone would really read exactly what I said, I think it would have been a completely different story,” said Thiem, interviewed by Moynet on the phone from Austria.

He said he didn’t watch all of Ibbou’s video, but saw what she said.

Thiem’s original statement was in connection with the since-abandoned plan put forth by ATP Tour Player Council president Novak Djokovic for the top-100 ranked players to give set amounts to a relief fund for the game’s foot soldiers. In Thiem’s case (and for all of the top five), that contribution would have been $30,000. It would have been a pittance for the top players, which was one reason there was backlash.

But it wasn’t the money, it was the principle. Thiem said he preferred to donate his money to organizations that, in his view, needed it more. He said that none of the tennis players were going to starve.

Comments strike a nerve

That is his right, of course. And most – with the exception of those who always want to spend successful athletes’ money for them – would concede him that point. Where he got himself into trouble was by also criticizing the effort and professionalism of some players at that level – thus implying, in essence, that they weren’t worthy of the assistance.

Thiem didn’t mean all of them. He quite clearly said it was only some of them – a distinction that got lost in the headlines. But you can understand that most players at that level would take it personally (even if those he was referring to likely didn’t recognize themselves in his comments, human nature being human nature).

Thiem after last year’s French Open final, where he lost to Novak Djokovic. In our old existence the Austrian would have been in Paris right now, training with a view to going one step further in 2020; if Roland Garros happens this year at all, it will be in the fall.

The comments struck a chord with Ibbou, whose young life has been one challenge after another as she chases the pro dream following a successful junior career. Hence the video, which has racked up a couple hundred thousand views online.

More than anything, Thiem’s comments were more a theme to build her piece around, rather than a personal rebuke to a player she’s never met. The Austrian wasn’t the only highly-ranked player to echo similar sentiments; he was just the first – and the least diplomatic.

Futures experience not a great one

In the L’Équipe interview, Thiem reiterated his view that there are many people and organizations struggling, who need the help more.

“There are obviously a lot of players who really deserve the support; they are really trying everything to get very good in sport. But it’s also my opinion that to start playing tennis and to be able to practice all your childhood, you need to be already in a quite privileged situation,” he said.

Thiem said that during 2 1/2 years spent on the Futures circuit early in his career, he ran across many older players who had been at that level for much longer – seven, even 10 years. And he hasn’t forgotten.

“There are many experiences that I don’t want to tell in public, because they’re not very nice; they’re really, really bad. So that’s how I know there are players who are not acting like professionals, like the sport deserves,” Thiem told Moynet. “It’s not everybody. There are many players who are not like that. But there are some, and that’s why you want to choose yourself who you support.”

Thiem at the Rogers Cup a few years ago. Since then, he has become the first “younger” player on Tour to be a consistent threat at the big events. (Stephanie Myles/Opencourt.ca)

Helping behind the scenes

The Austrian, whose father is involved in organizing an upcoming closed-door tournament in their country that will offer more than 150,000 euros in prize money, told l’Équipe that he has already helped some young juniors in his own country. But he hasn’t felt the need to publicize that help. “I do it because they deserve it, and because I want to do it – not to get a good reputation or something,” he said.

He’s 26 now, with close to $24 million in on-court earnings alone. But it wasn’t always easy street; his parents were just kids themselves when they had him. “I know what it’s like to have difficulties, and to work to overcome them,” he said, even though he’ll readily admit that he was luckier than many.

“It wasn’t as though we were starving or anything. We always had a good situation, a privileged situation. But tennis is a very expensive sport. Parents or sponsors have to pay, from a very young age, from 50,000 and 75,000 euros a year. It’s not easy to afford,” he said. Thiem’s parents, early on, sold an apartment they had to finance his start. “We did it for the career, not for an emergency situation, but to give me a chance to train and travel to play tournaments,” he said.

If mom and dad Thiem look really young – it’s because they are. On the far right right is younger brother Moritz a few years ago. Now 20, Moritz Thiem is grinding it out on the ITF circuit, currently ranked 1,225.

Challengers not fairly compensated

Thiem doesn’t have any answers about what the best way to help the lower-ranked players. Then again, no one has come up with the ideal solution. The relief fund for players ranked through No. 500 – the details of which were broken exclusively on Open Court over the weekend – offers relatively small sums to several hundred players.

Definitely better than nothing, but still a drop in the bucket.

Thiem thinks, as many do, that prize money could be more fairly distributed.

“For example, the level at the Challenger tour is amazing. There are so many very amazing players up there, and it’s so difficult to win a Challenger,” he said. “Given the competition, the players should earn more money these days. To go to a Challenger with a coach, or maybe even a physio, you just cannot make money unless you make the final, for sure. And that’s not right.”