“That’s what makes it very, very difficult for other players to break through. You have to beat at least two of them to win a big title.”
Thiem need look no further for an empathetic ear than Andy Murray, the Scot unfortunate enough to make a career as the nearly man, with a conversion rate of just three titles from his 21 grand slam semi-finals.
Considered one of Britain’s greatest sportsmen, Murray is likely to retire with only two more grand-slam victories than Thomas Johansson – the definition of a tennis journeyman, whose second-week appearances were so rare in his unremarkable career that he had presumably checked out of his hotel days before beating Marat Safin to the 2002 Australian Open title having not played any other seed higher than 21.
It is sport’s ability to separate and celebrate based on hard work and talent that lures us in. Skill and endeavour should always win out. Yet few factors are more important than being in the right place at the right time.
Or, most crucially, not facing the wrong person at the wrong time.
Bob May was someone who never looked destined to win a golf major. A latecomer to the sport, he overcame his parents’ indifference – when he asked his mother for golf lessons as a child she questioned whether such a thing existed – to put himself within a shot of the lead entering the final round of the 2000 US PGA Championship.
Unfortunately, the man he was up against was on his way to completing what would become known as the “Tiger Slam”. Woods’s play-off victory came at the expense of May shooting the best losing score (18 under par) in major championship history.
May had played the tournament of his life – one of the best by any golfer ever – but came up against someone he recalled “hit it the longest, he hit it the straightest, he could chip, he could putt.
“Where was the weakness? There was none.”
It was no surprise that May never came close again, playing just four more majors before a back injury necessitated his retirement without so much as a single PGA Tour triumph.
How different might May or Thiem’s life have been without Woods or Djokovic, Nadal and Federer? How much better could Mill House – the fourth highest-rated chaser in history – have been if he had not found himself up against the greatest in Arkle? How many Test wickets would leg-spinner Stuart MacGill have taken had Shane Warne not been in the same great Australian team of the early 2000s?
But it works both ways. For every Mill House – defeated by Arkle in a 1964 Gold Cup considered one of the best ever – there is a Johansson. And for every MacGill there is a Tiago Monteiro, whose moment of glory is worth recalling for its sheer good fortune in making him the only Portuguese driver ever to make a Formula One podium.
That it came in some of the strangest circumstances in the sport’s history mattered not a jot to Monteiro, who celebrated his third place at a 2005 US Grand Prix featuring just six cars long after the embarrassed Ferrari one-two of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello had hastily exited the scene.
Had it not been for a mass boycott over tyre safety, Monteiro would almost certainly never have made the podium in Indianapolis.
How Thiem must wish for an ounce of such good luck. Why me, why him and why now?
Sometimes it does not seem fair.
The Telegraph, London