Tennis

Dominic Thiem’s coach Nicolas Massu: His ‘intensity’ and work ethic set him apart

Can Domi become a dominant force in tennis? His coach, a double Olympic gold medallist, says in an exclusive chat that what matters most is his commitment to excellence.

By Nick McCarvel ·

From the sideline, coach Nicolas Massu lives every Dominic Thiem tennis match like he’s on court, too.

The Chilean, the only man to win both the singles and doubles golds at the same Olympics – at Athens 2004 – helped guide the 27-year-old Austrian to his first-ever major title when Thiem won the U.S. Open last month.

It marked the first time in six years that a male player had won his maiden singles major, and Thiem became the first man born in the 1990s to hoist a Grand Slam trophy.

“I try to show Dominic all the time that I'm playing the match with him,” Massu told Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview. “I'm not running with him, but I'm playing the match with him outright. I'm totally focused on every point. I'm very passionate.”

It’s why Massu and Thiem, at first a surprising Chilean-Austrian duo, have had such success since joining forces in February 2019: They share similar philosophies in their approach to the sport of tennis.

In their brief time together, Thiem has won six tournaments, notably his triumph in New York, where he beat Alexander Zverev in a seesaw final full of nerves, shaky tennis and ultimate emotions.

Thiem has made another three finals, including at last year’s French Open against Rafael Nadal (as well as in 2018). This fortnight, team Thiem, Massu included, worked hard through the French Open, played on Dominic’s surest surface being that of Roland Garros: the famed red clay.

But the workhorse Thiem could only go so far: He won three straight-set matches before being pushed to five sets by French player Hugo Gaston, the Youth Olympics champion from 2018, in round four. In the quarter-finals, he fell in a five-set, five-hour epic to Diego Schwartzman of Argentina, 7-6(1), 5-7, 6-7(6), 7-6(5), 6-2.

“When you connect with a guy like Dominic who has the same feeling and he practices with a lot of intensity… you don't have to say anything because the guy is giving the best effort,” explained Massu of their synergy.

“There's not too many guys on the tour that practice with intensity (like his) every day. And that's why, besides his talent, besides his smarter play, besides his shots and all these kinds of things that you do (on court), all the people know about his talent and his potential.” - Nicolas Massu to Olympic Channel

Potential can be tricky in modern-day men’s tennis, with the dominance of “The Big Three” over the last decade – Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Nadal – as well as the likes of Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, a tour de force that has made breaking through at the highest level one of the toughest asks in all of sport.

But his U.S. Open victory cloaked Thiem with the moniker of “Grand Slam champ,” and Massu said it’s as simple as putting the ball into play: None of the records or pressure or media coverage matter if you can’t find your very best level when it counts.

“The only thing that is real is that you have to go on court and to play the match and fight from the first ball to the last one,” said Massu, who is now 40. “And then you will see if you win or not. But the most important thing is to be positive from here. We have to be really grateful to be playing (the French Open), because world is having trouble right now and many things are suspended.”

Massu’s magical run

Massu reached world No.9 in his career and won six singles titles, none of them as heralded as his triumph at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, where he came back from a two-sets-to-one deficit vs. American Mardy Fish to capture his country’s first-ever gold at the Games, then followed it up by winning the doubles, too, with big-hitting countryman Fernando Gonzalez.

Massu played over 25 hours of tennis in eight days. Only Venus and Serena Williams have matched his golden double-dipping achievement in the same Games: Venus won both singles and doubles in 2000; Serena in 2012.

“My dream was to put my name for my country… in the history of something,” Massu shared. “I work all my life to do something big on that day and that week… that two weeks was my moment. And I was prepared for that because I had trained so hard. When this opportunity arrived, (I took) it, because you never know if this chance is going to be there again, because in a normal athlete, we have (few chances) at the Olympics. That is amazing.”

When top-seeded Federer lost in the second round in Athens, Massu pounced: He had beaten Grand Slam champ Gustavo Kuerten in his first match, then No.3 seed Carlos Moya (now Nadal’s coach) in the quarter-finals. He and Gonzalez nearly made it an historic all-Chilean final, but Massu summoned his best when down against Fish in the gold medal bout.

They’d win the doubles gold thereafter, too, saving four gold medal points against Germans Nicolas Kiefer and Rainer Scheuttler.

“I started to believe that I could do something important maybe in the middle of the week when I arrived to two quarters, in singles and doubles,” Massu remembered of 2004. “And then you start to believe, of course, that you are close. And I was playing really well, solid physically. I was really strong; in my best shape. When this opportunity arrives, I take it. It's important to be prepared.”

Thiem’s grand win in NYC

Meticulous in his preparation and training, Thiem is certainly ready to do big things himself. He’s still considered “young” at 27 in a sport that now skews older.

The U.S. Open victory could spell danger for his opponents: With no current Grand Slam titleholders remaining into the final stages of the event last month in New York, Thiem had to battle through visible nerves and then cramping in the fifth set to beat Zverev. There was no come-from-behind underdog win against a favoured player like Djokovic or Nadal. He had to earn it.

“Sometimes you need to take the opportunity,” said Massu. “Maybe the final of the U.S. Open was the opportunity for both of them, not only for Dominic, (but) for Sascha [Zverev] also.

I think it's not easy to have the pressure sometimes, but the person or the player who manages all these kinds of things better is the person who arrives (first) and takes the trophy.” - Massu to Olympic Channel

Thiem had been 0-3 in major finals prior, with two losses in Paris to Nadal, and one to Djokovic, earlier this year at the Australian Open.

While tennis has become increasingly physical, technical, strategic, and mental, Massu’s onus on hard work is the exact aspect of Thiem that he feels sets him apart from the rest of the up-and-coming men’s tour, including Zverev, Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas and Russians Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev and many others on the “who will be next” list.

“Dominic is a guy who knows exactly what he needs,” said Massu. “And this is important because this gives you years of experience (on the tour). It is really important to bring my best (as his coach). Because I tell you, if I'm here because I'm a winner, Dominic is a winner. And we try to do our work the best we can together.”

While Thiem has had a public spat with his former coach Günter Bresnik in the German-language press, the team around Thiem – including father Wolfgang, a former club coach, and frequent practice partner in brother Moritz – is what Massu says makes the player himself even stronger on court.

“He's a really good guy. The family supports (him) a lot,” said Massu. “And the communication, the respect… this work makes it easy for me to manage many, many things.”

Irrespective of the result in Paris, Massu said he is only focussed on continuing to instill a work-first mentality as they continue their partnership.

“I think that we are in the good way and now the results are going amazing. But you need to believe in the work also. Once the results are not going like now it's so difficult to maintain,” he explained. “So the most important thing is to believe in the work. It's not so easy. But he can do it. He can do it because he has the potential. You have the have potential.”

Nicolas Massu, Athens 2004

Domi at Tokyo 2020?

Having carried the flag in for Chile at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, then creating history in Athens and playing again at Beijing 2008, it’s safe to say the Games hold a special place in Massu’s heart.

But Thiem was set to forego the Olympics in 2020, with a big event scheduled for the same week in his home country of Austria. Will coach change his charge’s mind on Tokyo?

“I always support him (and) what he wants,” Massu admitted. “But then he (also) said to me that one day he wants to play the Olympic Games. We will see when he (and the team) decides… if he wants to play maybe the next year or (at Paris 2024). It’s something that I respect. It’s his decision. For me, it’s important that the player makes the decision.”