Waiting for a true champion

Gunter Bresnik hopes his hard ways will turn Dominic Thiem into a star player

Waiting for a true champion
Interviewing Dominic Thiem’s grizzled coach, Gunter Bresnik, was, as usual, an edifying experience last Thursday. But it was also a bit unsettling.

No sooner had Bresnik mentioned the Romanian impresario Ion Tiriac’s effect on his life than Tiriac appeared in person in a Panama hat, exchanging pleasantries and prematch counsel on the eve of Thiem’s French Open semifinal against Rafael Nadal.

No sooner had Bresnik talked about his coaching 26 players who reached the top 100 through the years than the former French star Henri Leconte, one of those pupils, also stopped by Bresnik’s table in the players’ lounge.

Just whom might Bresnik conjure next?

“I’ve coached so many people that it is easy to run into some of them,” Bresnik, 56, said with a chuckle. “They all taught me so much, and I realised later that they probably taught me more than I taught them. And you’re right, now Dominic is benefiting from all this.”

The theory is that Thiem is the culmination of Bresnik’s long, unusual career. Bresnik did not start playing tennis until age 16, and had studied to be a doctor.

“My parents were both doctors, and my sisters are both professors, and the idiot Gunter is the tennis teacher,” Bresnik said.

“I am successful and well-respected, especially in my family, but at the beginning, they were laughing. The journalists were saying: ‘What is this guy doing? Is he carrying the suitcases? He has no clue.'” Bresnik has worked with Thiem formally since Thiem was 9, but he has known Thiem since he was 3 — after Thiem’s father, Wolfgang, came to work as a coach at Bresnik’s academy in Vienna in 1997.

Brick by brick and stroke by stroke, Bresnik has built a top-10 player and potential French Open champion. But he has helped develop a solid person, too.

“Bresnik is a disciplined, hardworking, humble man and coach, and it reflects on Thiem,” said Boris Becker, who worked with Bresnik late in his career. “Dom himself is very humble. He only needs six racquets and a few clothes. He’s the opposite of a footballer.”

Patrick McEnroe, another of Bresnik’s former students, said that he saw Thiem as the ideal Bresnik project.

“A strong, athletic, fairly straightforward player who has built himself into a physically imposing player,” McEnroe said. “He’s good enough to win the French Open for sure.”

Though Nadal is now coached by the former No 1 Carlos Moyá as well as his uncle, Toni Nadal, it was Toni who taught him the game, doing the brick-building and much of the character-building, that eventually guided him to 14 Grand Slam singles titles.  Toni Nadal has said that this will be his last French Open as his nephew’s main coach.

Like Bresnik, Toni Nadal was not a tour-level player, yet was able to help his hardworking, topspin-ripping pupil navigate all the choppy water from neophyte to leading professional.

It is a rare feat, demanding a panoply of skill sets, including long-range vision and patience. Thiem and Nadal were encouraged to play other sports as youngsters to develop all-around athletic skills. Toni Nadal switched Nadal from playing right-handed to left-handed. Bresnik switched Thiem from a two-handed backhand to a one-handed backhand when he was 12 and finally sturdy enough to make the transition.

“At the age of 30 as a coach, you want it to happen immediately,” Bresnik said. “But now I know it’s not going to happen tomorrow, and that’s all right. I enjoy the process. You don’t try to force certain things. You have to let things happen.”

Yet he has pushed Thiem’s limits, sometimes to the extreme, physically and logistically, emphasising heavy if innovative fitness training and a controversially heavy tournament schedule that has sometimes cost Thiem on court.

But Thiem is not one to complain — Bresnik said he was the only player he had coached who had never asked him when a practice session was going to end — and both insist the long-term goal has been to construct a foundation that will not crumble under big-match, full-season pressure.

Bresnik, who has four children — all daughters — and now considers Wolfgang Thiem his best friend, said he came close to getting “choked up” when he thought about all the “torture” he had put Dominic through.

“I always said, ‘Listen, I don’t prepare you for Club Med; I prepare you for the jungle or the war,’ or whatever stupid words you want to use,” Bresnik said. “It sounds bad, because tennis is not a war, but you are not going to succeed in this sport if you are soft physically or mentally or in any of these departments. “At 45 years old, you know all these things are necessary. You see their weaknesses as a 10-year-old so much clearer because they are not hiding anything at that age, and you have so much influence on making change. If you have a 20-year-old and he’s scared of something, he’s going to be scared until the end of his life.”

But Thiem is 23 now and anything but afraid of using his power under pressure. Relatively late to hit puberty, he now has some of the most decisive strokes in the sport.

McEnroe said he would trust Bresnik to coach his own daughter, but for now, Thiem remains Bresnik’s focus, a potential masterwork in progress. For all the players he has coached — from the journeymen to the Beckers — he has yet to coach a player who has won a Grand Slam singles title.

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