Dominic Thiem has one of the finest backhands on the ATP tour. A one-handed backhand like Thiem’s is always an elegant shot to watch, yet the power and accuracy he delivers has made Thiem’s backhand a fearsome weapon on any surface.
It has helped Thiem develop as a player, reaching a high of number three in the world, and seeing him win his first major title at the US Open in 2020 (source).
Dominic Thiem’s backhand is based around a rather conservative Eastern backhand grip. The straight arm he maintains through the turn combines with a high backlift of the racket to generate the power for which his backhand has become known.
The Thiem backhand is a precise shot, a product of hours of hard graft and practice. Elements of his technique are different from those of his main rivals. However, the one-handed backhand was certainly not a natural shot for Thiem.
In this article, I’m going to look at how his backhand evolved, and really dive into the nuts and bolts of what makes this shot such a spectacular weapon to behold.
Changing to a One Handed Backhand
Dominic Thiem grew up on the clay courts back home in Austria.
This ease on the clay has translated into two appearances in the final at the French Open, while the majority of his 17 singles titles to date have been on clay.
All these events would have seen Thiem using his trademark one-handed backhand as one of his prime weapons.
However, up until the age of 12 years Dominic Thiem played with a two-handed backhand, a shot that helped him become the best player in Austria within his age group.
Thiem then changed to a one-handed backhand on the advice of his coach, Gunter Bresnik.
This led to a tough spell for the young Austrian, as he saw his national age-group ranking plummet.
Mentally difficult, he admits to seriously questioning if it had been the right decision.
However, with the benefit of hindsight and a lot of hard graft, Thiem has since developed one of the most effective and feared backhands on the pro circuit.
Before we get into the analysis, here are a few examples of the Thiem backhand in full flow to whet the appetite.
The grip is one of the most important elements in Dominic Thiem’s backhand.
He uses a fairly conservative one-handed eastern backhand grip, where the index knuckle and the heel pad of the hand are on bevel one of the racket (source).
Thiem keeps the angle of his knuckles in line with the racket, and not spread across the handle.
Dominic Thiem grips quite low down on the racket compared to some of his fellow top pros. His grip helps provide the power as well as the topspin on the backhand drive.
This clip looks at the Eastern backhand grip in more detail.
Setting Up the Thiem Backhand
One of the first things you notice as Dominic Thiem prepares to play his backhand is how compact and relaxed he remains, with arms bent close to the body and the racket tip pointing up.
The racket tip remains pointing skyward as Thiem moves into his unit turn, and he also maintains a compact form by keeping the racket tight between the shoulder and his chin.
When Thiem changes to his eastern backhand grip with his right hand, his non-dominant left-hand holds the throat of the racket.
For many players, this is a light guiding grip, but for Thiem his left hand has a decent hold which he only releases just before contact, helping his balance as he rotates through the shot.
As Thiem goes into his full unit turn there is another element to his technique that is rare, and that is the height of his hand and racket head.
Thiem gets his right hand just above his shoulder, with the racket high above his head and the face closed to his opponent. All this will help generate power when Thiem uncoils from his unit turn.
The other element to note is that throughout his turn Thiem keeps the racket arm straight. This allows him to release its stored energy through the momentum of the swing to impart power into the backhand.
Point of Contact
On his backhand drive, Dominic Thiem transfers his weight from the back foot through to the front foot with the swing.
As the racket drops Thiem maintains his head position over the shoulder, always watching the ball. The arm stays straight, with the stroke played from in to out.
As mentioned previously, Thiem keeps his left hand on the throat of the racket until just prior to striking the ball to help with his balance at the point of contact.
Balance is crucial to the shot to help Thiem generate the power at contact.
The right knee bends to make the shot, the extent of the bend depending on the bounce of the ball. His body remains still throughout the shot, not over-rotating.
This stillness, coupled with his balance, allows him to keep his knee bent to play balls that stay low.
The Final Flourish
Dominic Thiem rounds off one of the most elegant backhands in the game with a final flourish worthy of the rest of the swing.
His racket arm continues its swing path from in to out before extending on its arc and finishing way above his head. All the time the arm remains straight.
You rarely see a player with such a high finishing point with their racket. Another trademark Thiem element of the final flourish is the way he ends chest and shoulders square on facing his opponent, with his left arm also swung straight and behind the body.
The Sliced Backhand
For a sliced backhand, Thiem will tend to use a continental grip.
Another difference to his backhand drive is the position of the racket during the unit turn.
For the slice the racket is positioned close to the shoulder with the racket head on edge, pointing behind him rather than toward the sky. This allows him to impart lots of backspin in order to keep the ball low in his opponent’s court.
Thiem does not chop down on the ball too much, swinging more high to level, with the racket head open to get the ball to lift.
The stroke is completed by Thiem pulling across and finishing with both hands behind him. The racket hand is not above the head as with his backhand drives, but his left arm is pulled further behind him for balance.
The stance for the sliced backhand will depend on the pace and spin on the incoming ball, and what Thiem wants to do with his return.
When he is a bit stretched and needs to play a more defensive stroke his stance is more neutral as opposed to being open, when his weight would normally be transferred to the front foot.
Perfecting the Backhand
After the early doubts about switching to a one-handed backhand, Dominic Thiem now appreciates it was the right move.
It is a dominant shot, one which is a treat for spectators, if not for his opponent.
This has only been possible through hours and hours of practice, tinkering, and more practice.
By his own admission, Rafael Nadal was still someone who caused him problems on his backhand side.
However, after defeating the Spaniard in the ATP finals in 2020 he mentioned how hard he had practiced on his backhand return down the line as part of a successful winning plan.
Thiem still thinks a two-handed backhand is probably easier when returning serve, but has no plans to revert to this style.
The decision to change Dominic Thiem’s backhand to a one-handed stroke at such an early age appears to have paid dividends. At the age of 27, he has four grand slam tournament finals under his belt, including the 2020 US Open win.
Of course, there could always be the debate about whether he may have achieved even more if he had kept with the two-handed backhand of his youth.
However, watching his fluent one-handed backhand today, with its admirable power and accuracy, you can not now imagine Dominic Thiem without it.