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Great Expectations vs. Skepticism

Dominic Thiem [1]
Dominic Thiem, chatting with himself. February 2017. Image: Facebook [1]
Waiting for Them To Get Thiem

If you follow tennis, you may know Dominic Thiem.

Currently at No. 8 in the Emirates ATP World Tour rankings, the 23-year-old Austrian has a way of making announcers sound uninformed about him.

An intelligent, moody player, he usually can be found at the baseline, discussing a point with himself. Occasionally, he looks over at his box, more often not. You know why people talk to themselves, don’t you? Because they’re the best conversationalists they know. Thiem is a good conversationalist and wastes little energy on fist pumping theatrics. He’s there to win more than to entertain. So he talks his way through it.

“Oh. Thiem did it,” one announcer for Sky Sports says, as Thiem’s one-handed backhand gets the attention of Stan Wawrinka, currently the world’s No. 3. It’s the quarterfinals at Larry Ellison’s BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells last night (March 16).

“He can really motor around out there,” the second announcer says, seemingly taken aback.

It’s as if these commentators don’t know or don’t believe that Thiem has been as high as No. 7 in the rankings. He’s won more than $5.7 million in prize money so far. He has eight titles after spending most of 2016 on the road in a blitz of tournaments. This year, he’s won the Rio tournament on clay already. Last year: Stuttgart, Nice, Acapulco, Buenos Aires. In 2015: Gstaad, Umag, Nice.

“Combination thoroughbred and plow horse,” one of the announcers says, still apparently scratching his head as the artful Austrian keeps up with the Swiss.

“Pressure is building,” one announcer intones ominously. “Incredible how much harder those shots become to make.”

In fairness to announcers who call these matches, part of their job is to generate suspense, sex it up. It’s too bad that at this point in Thiem’s career, this often means casting him as a lucky upstart.

Thiem (pronounced “Team”) is the son of professional tennis coaches Wolfgang and Karin, who graciously handed his youthful development over to master coach Günter Bresnik. They could tell they needed top-level guidance for a son this talented. That bit of parental honesty has helped produce a formidably promising player who works punishingly long hours on the court, switches fluently from clay to hard court or grass, and faithfully reports to fans on his matches, both in German and in English.

Match after match, whether Thiem wins or loses, he’s articulate, respectful of other players, at once temperamental and yet in control of his temper.

“Man, this guy has everything it takes to be a champion,” an announcer said during his Rio-winning match. But he’s being made to pay his dues, proving that he’s a persistent performer, a standout in a field crammed with gifted competitors.

And that’s my provocation for you today. How hard do you find it is for others to see you as the writer you are? How fashionable is it for us all to wax skeptical?

Authors aren’t the only ones.

Wawrinka now is questioning the chair on a call. The Austrian watches. Thiem has pulled ahead of Wawrinka in the second set, 4-2. Is anybody in the booth ready to concede that the challenger has come up with unexpected grace and capability? Maybe begrudgingly: “Stunning. When Thiem’s in full flow on that backhand…” Yeah.

When They Can’t See What You’ve Got
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

So who among us doesn’t think we’re overlooked, right?

But like unbranded authors—especially those whose work isn’t quite the commercial norm—a radically gifted athlete or artist or surgeon or technologist has to try to stay on track without the benefit of the world’s approval.

“Thiem has taken the bull by the horns, if you will, here in this second set,” we now hear from the announcers. Golly gee. They have to admit: “Thiem’s been the aggressor. Wawrinka has just been trying to hang on.”

Great to hear the guys in the booth start catching on, isn’t it? Thiem plucks another point off Stan the Man in a forehand volley.

So are you a head case, too? Most creative types are. Easily unsettled by a doubting Tomas or Serena.

Not unlike Rafael Nadal, Thiem gets into trouble when his focus wavers. At 23, your focus can waver a lot. Andy Roddick won the US Open at 21. He’d spent his late teens getting there. These guys, like authors, are expected to arrive at full tilt, edited and designed. Too bad Adidas doesn’t outfit writers, isn’t it?

Tennis has to be played at an early point in life. It’s an awfully high-stakes, super-exposed business for young souls to handle.

“Boy, Thiem was a different guy in this second set,” one of the announcers now admits. In fact, it’s not unusual for Thiem to drop the first set, getting settled in, scoping out his opponent. he wins his second set against Wawrinka with the contained calm of Roger Federer, no hysterics.

At 6-4, 4-6, the booth now is sitting up. Finally.

For writers, the good ones, focus means suffering fashionable doubt. Skepticism is thought to be clever. Everybody’s a critic. They’re shocked, I tell you, shocked to find that you’re…good. Who knew? You did. And they should have. But they don’t.

Not until you make them pay attention. You may need to do some talking to yourself.

Thiem is in that stage of a career rich in potential: he’s busy getting our attention. My guess is that these so-show-us-what-you’ve-got stares from the stands aren’t always fun.  But he’s working it well.

You may not have his youth on your side.  But you’ll understand what he’s up against. He needs buy-in. And the most important one he needs that from his the guy he’s talking to: himself.

When you tell them you’re an author, do you believe it? If you don’t, the guys in the booth calling your match won’t, either.

“Now, that is truly magnificent,” one of the announcers says of a sweet return from Thiem in the third set. Graphics are coming up to show us Thiem’s “very accurate serving” in the second set. “It really has to be said that Thiem has hit the ball with more authority tonight.” Stars have come out over the desert.

Before Wawrinka’s next serve, Thiem blows on his fingers, trying to dry his grip. How’s yours? And how’s your baseline conversation with yourself? Do you believe yourself? Are you mentally strong?

Tennis, like writing, is a game of skill but a business of wits. The body, sure. But the muscles need minding. The mind needs focus. And the focus needs belief.

Thiem dances, waiting for the next serve, tied 5-5 in the third set of a match he’s about to lose. Today will be one of those days for him. Do you know a single writer who can’t relate?

How much of a head case is your match? What throws you off your game? Who’s the best conversationalist you know? And do you buy yourself? Really? No, really?

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About Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) [2]

@Porter_Anderson [3] is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [4], the international publishing industry news magazine of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He and Jane Friedman produce @The Hot Sheet [5], the essential industry newsletter for authors. Anderson previously was The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook [6] in London. He is also a featured writer with #MusicForWriters [7] series, often in association with PorterAndersonMedia.com [8] | Google+ [9]