It took a pandemic, an injury and a bust up on court for tennis to get its first new Grand Slam men’s champion in six years. This was a US Open like none other in recent memory: the empty stands told the tale of the global health crisis while the finalists on Sunday didn’t have to face the three dominant players of the era.
A knee injury kept out Roger Federer, still looking to add to his 20 Major titles at 39. Nadal, at 19 wins, pulled out due to the Covid-19 situation while Djokovic, world No.1 and expected to make this his 18th Slam win, was expelled in the fourth round after a ball he hit in anger struck a line judge.
The winner, Austria’s Dominic Thiem, 27, became the first man born in the 1990s to win a Slam, at the end of a nervy, four-hour plus match that was also the first US Open title decided on a fifth-set tie-breaker.
The first real drop of emotion to seep out of either player came four sets, 39 games and over three hours into the match: “C’mon, let’s go!” yelled Alexander Zverev as he broke back to level 1-1 with Thiem in the deciding set.
Until then the tussle between the two first-time Slam hopefuls was of varied imperfections and palpable nerves, a far cry from the mastery tennis fans have been spoilt for due to the presence of at least one of the ‘Big Three’ in the previous 14 Major finals. If Thiem blew cold at the start, Zverev froze with the finish in sight.
In the end, after four hours and one minute of neither man completely breaking the shackles, Thiem achieved a 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(6) victory after being two sets and a break down against the younger German opponent, pocketing his maiden Grand Slam title. No matter the circumstances, the second seed will take a Grand Slam title gleefully after faltering thrice at the last hurdle.
The men’s final at the Arthur Ashe Stadium had a resemblance to the women’s final a day prior between Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka; the underdog quick off the blocks before the favourite turned the tables in time to avoid being crushed. The script was similar, though the quality of the match wasn’t.
The big-serving Zverev looked set to seal his first Major final, despite some hiccups late in the second set, when he broke Thiem early in the third. Thiem neither had answers or a Plan B to the German’s aggression as he continued to return and engage in rallies from way behind the baseline. Out of the blue, the free-flowing Zverev got tight, allowing Thiem to get back on terms immediately.
Zverev’s Achilles’ heel, the second serve, then haunted him. A double fault, a couple of feeble second serves and errors at 5-4 gave Thiem the third set despite the German having more winners and fewer unforced errors in it.
Starting problems gone, Thiem flexed his muscles in the fourth set to set up the decider. After exchanging two early breaks, both had the chance to wrap up the match (Zverev at 5-3, Thiem at 6-5) but both squandered it. The tie-breaker was an epitome of the contest. It had nervy errors from either player and then two crucial double faults from Zverev, which handed it 8-6 to Thiem.
“It’s very understandable that we both didn’t play our highest tennis anymore,” Thiem said after the match. “We both didn’t face one of the Big Three, so I guess that was in the back of the head for both of us. That’s why we were on nerves.”
A reward, finally
No matter the quality of the match, Thiem has been steadily proving himself a worthy contender at the very top level of tennis. Since he broke into the top 10 of the ATP world rankings in June 2016, Thiem hasn’t dropped out of it. He’s developed into a consistent player on the Tour, and entered three Slam finals in the last two years. Even in those three heartbreaks, Thiem showed progress. After a straight-sets loss to Nadal at the 2018 French Open, he took a set off him at Roland Garros last year and stretched Djokovic to five sets at this year’s Australian Open final.
He also began to get the better of the Big 3, though not at a Slam final. Since 2018, Thiem has a better head-to-head record against Djokovic (3-2) and Federer (3-1). With Nadal, it’s 3-4. Thiem has beaten Djokovic and Nadal in Grand Slams, the former twice at Roland Garros.
All these victories helped accumulate confidence, a turnaround was imminent.
“I got closer and closer to the top. At one point I realised, ‘Wow, maybe one day I can really win one of the four biggest titles in tennis’,” Thiem said.
He now has. Amid all the talk of the flashy Zverev or Stefanos Tsitsipas leading GenNext in world tennis, the almost mechanical Thiem has got the job done. With the monkey off his back, it’s time to have fun on the court, which can only make him a more formidable player.
“I expect it’s going to be easier for me now in the biggest tournaments because, of course, I had it in the back of my head that I had a great career so far… but until today there was still a big part, a big goal, missing.
“With this goal achieved, I think and I hope I’m going to be a little bit more relaxed and play a little bit more freely at the biggest events.”
French Open, next up, is sure to see at least two of the Big Three in the mix. It could show whether Thiem is truly the man of the moment.