The Off-Court Humbling of Dominic Thiem

ATP’s World №3 gets lashed by unlikely opponent, WTA’s №602, Ines Ibbou

A product endorsement photo of Algerian singles player, Ines Ibbou.

At minute six in the nine-minute film “Dear Dominic” she posted on Instagram on 8 May, Ines Ibbou, the top female player in Algeria, walks behind the scenes at the Qatar Total Open — past posters of Ashleigh Barty, Karolina Pliskova, and Belinda Bencic — and sets her bag on an empty court. Once ranked №23 in the ITF juniors, Ibbou, whose open video letter to Austrian pro, Dominic Thiem, has gone viral, asks Thiem what it’s like to have “a coach who assists you on tour? A personal trainer? A physiotherapist? A mental coach? A dedicated staff?”

By this time, if viewers don’t already know about Thiem’s opposition to $6 million in funds for lower ranked players — amid calls for Top 100 players to donate even more to players ranked from 250 to 700 — they get the gist. Throughout the video, they have seen and heard snippets of Ibbou’s life growing up outside Algiers, the sparse red clay courts on which she plays, the boxing gyms where she trains, the walks to the embassy to get visas and the lone woman lugging her oversized bag to a plane.

At minute six in the nine-minute film “Dear Dominic” she posted on Instagram on 8 May, Ines Ibbou, the top female player in Algeria, walks behind the scenes at the Qatar Total Open — past posters of Ashleigh Barty, Karolina Pliskova, and Belinda Bencic — and sets her bag on an empty court. Once ranked №23 in the ITF juniors, Ibbou, whose open video letter to Austrian pro, Dominic Thiem, has gone viral, asks Thiem what it’s like to have “a coach who assists you on tour? A personal trainer? A physiotherapist? A mental coach? A dedicated staff?”

By this time, if viewers don’t already know about Thiem’s opposition to $6 million in funds for lower ranked players — amid calls for Top 100 players to donate even more to players ranked from 250 to 700 — they get the gist. Throughout the video, they have seen and heard snippets of Ibbou’s life growing up outside Algiers, the sparse red clay courts on which she plays, the boxing gyms where she trains, the walks to the embassy to get visas and the lone woman lugging her oversized bag to a plane.

It’s a powerful statement showing the routine life of the majority of tennis professionals whipped together in less than two weeks by a media-savvy 21-year-old in a country — on a continent — that has a small ITF presence, no ATP or WTA events (aside from one in Morocco) and money that can get “lost” in local tennis federations. Ibbou was motivated by the 27 April remarks in which Thiem told Austria’s Krone newspaper, that “no tennis player will be fighting to survive, even those who are much lower-ranked.”

The three-time Grand Slam finalist added that his experience on the ITF Futures circuit had shown him “many, many players who don’t put the sport above everything else and don’t live in a professional manner.” Two days later, Thiem, 26, clarified, saying that his remarks came across as “a bit harsh” and that “There are some players I would not like to support. So I’d prefer the player got to choose and then it would benefit the ones who really need it.”

Top-ranked Austrian player, Dominic Thiem, during the Australian Open final in January.

However, the remarks and social media responses — especially the one from Ibbou, who has received support from Venus Williams, Nick Kyrgios and Africa’s top player, Ons Jabeur — are just the most recent riffs in a growing divide between the proletariat and patrician classes of tennis. It now costs anywhere from $150,000 (bare minimum) to $2 million per year for players to participate on the tour.

Many tour veterans, such as John Millman of Australia, have called for a top-down review and a realignment of prize money. “so more players eat a piece of pie.” He was riffing on comments made by Ukrainian player, №200, Illya Marchenko, who disagreed with “this sort of charity thing.

“Players should get what they deserve. And we deserve much more than we are getting right now. Yes, with lower ranked players you have no sponsors and spectators, but without them tennis would not exist.”

Ines Ibbou preparing to warm up before the Qatar Total Open in January.

But no doubt, Ibbou’s video has shown further roadblocks besides just prize money and even the lack of sponsors, of which she says “Adidas, Nike, Wilson, Prince, Head…don’t even exist,” in Africa. Ibbou, who has come back from two career-threatening injuries, highlighted that, in addition to coaching, physical therapy and traveling expenses, the inequity in the sport goes as far as the country into which players are born, as well as their gender (still).

“I’m a lonely lady, traveling the world generally in three legs trips always looking for the lowest tickets, sacrificing my time, trainings and recoveries just to apply for a simple visa… No free pass. No red carpet… No Shenguen [sic]… And I forgot to mention, I need a visa pretty much every place I need to go.”

In the end, Ibbou took a direct hit at Thiem reminding him that players like her did not ask for anything from him, aside from respect. She added that the Covid-19 crisis was “revealing who players truly are”, that the court, not money, should decide the outcome of her career, and that helping players is helping tennis to survive.

“Or maybe you want to play alone?” she asks in the end.

Commenting to The National, a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, Ibbou said of the video, “I felt for the first time ever that I’m heard.”

“I was expecting some response from some lower-ranked players like me, but not all these people… I hope they will change something about the tour, and they really think about it and try to help us, players.”

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Adrian Margaret Brune is a native Oklahoman who lives, works, writes, runs and plays competitive tennis in London, UK.

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Adrian Margaret Brune

Adrian Margaret Brune

Adrian Margaret Brune is a native Oklahoman who lives, works, writes, runs and plays competitive tennis in London, UK.

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