US Open 2020

US Open 2020: Dominic Thiem beats Sascha Zverev to win first Major in 4-hour epic

Thiem is first Major champion born in 1990s, and first new winner in four years

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Dominic Thiem
Dominic Thiem (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

This extraordinary US Open concluded with the 10th meeting between two of the best players in the world: No3 Dominic Thiem and No7 Alexander Zverev. In almost every other respect, the 2020 men’s singles final had continued to notch up firsts.

Whoever won the title would be the first men’s Major champion not named Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer in almost four years.

Thiem and Zverev had already established the first Major final that did not involve one of the ‘big four’—adding Andy Murray to the equation—since the US Open in 2014.

Zverev, age 23, was now the youngest Major finalist of the last decade—since Djokovic, younger by a month, at the 2010 US Open. And he aimed to become the youngest Major champion since Juan Martin del Potro won the 2009 US Open at the age of 20.

And by the end of the final match of this memorable Major, tennis would crown its first Major men’s champion born in the 1990s. Not only had the last 63 been born in the 1980s, but the last 14 of them were over 30 years of age.

They were battling statistics that had begun to haunt the 90s generation of players. All of them were trying to break through a glass ceiling reinforced by the three most prolific Major champions of all time: Federer with 20, Nadal with 19, Djokovic 17.

The same three had also occupied the No1 ranking for most of the last 16 years, indeed all but the 41-week block following Murray’s surge to victory after victory in 2016. A few others have, from time to time, encroached on the No3 ranking—Thiem is there now, Zverev was there 18 months ago—but that, too, had been rarefied air enjoyed by a very select group of players, the likes of former US champions Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic and del Potro.

Thiem, at just turned 27 years of age, could with victory edge closer to the still more rarefied ranking, No2, for he lost in the first round in New York last year—and no-one but the ‘big four’ has done that in more than 15 years.

Thiem, on paper and in the minds of most pundits, was certainly favoured to win this 10th meeting. The Austrian’s progress through the tournament had been seamless, completed in almost four hours fewer than Zverev’s, and for the loss of only one set—to former champion Cilic. That said, his tussle with last year’s runner-up, another of the young Major pretenders Daniil Medvedev, needed three hours to win.

Meanwhile, Zverev had rallied back from a set down against all three of his seeded opponents. Add to the mix that the world No3 had built a 7-2 lead over Zverev, and the super-fit Austrian, now a three-time Major finalist, had many advantages.

And yet—Zverev had this year recruited the now-retired David Ferrer to his team, a man famed for his work-ethic, his never-say-die attitude, his focus and foot-speed, a man admired by all: a ‘coach’ who seemed to have ignited a ‘dig deep’ mind-set.

Perhaps this was the final piece in a jigsaw of prodigious talent that had taken Zverev to three Masters titles and the ATP Finals trophy. Could he at last convert his best-of-three intensity to the best-of-five ultimate test?

He certainly started with attack and intent, acing to hold his first service game, and then chivvying a nervy Thiem to force a backhand error for the break. The tall German, after grinding through five sets to win his semi-final, was injecting pace, threw in a serve-and-volley, was all attack. He held to love, 3-1, and very nearly broke again in the next.

Another love hold for Zverev punched through Thiem, whose serving was at below 40 percent. A tired double fault brought up break point, and he missed a forehand to concede another break. Zverev served out the set, 6-2.

The stats only reinforced the aggressive tactics adopted by Zverev: 16 winners, seven net points won, multiple serves over 130mph. And he got a break chance in the first game of Set 2. He could not convert, but the gauntlet was well and truly thrown down. He took advantage of Thiem standing metres back to receive, and served to love again,

A 100mph forehand winner worked break point in the third game, and this time Zverev took it. A hold through deuce, and he was 3-1, and Zverev continued the attack to break again. He seemed to be taking a leaf out of the book of his idol, Federer, and attacking the net with alacrity, even after his big second serve. It was a double whammy: It kept the points short and prevented Thiem from getting any rhythm into his game.

Zverev had three set points on Thiem’s serve at 1-5, but the Austrian held, and then there was a twist—Thiem went on to break back, 3-5 and consolidated with a very welcome love hold. It was the first significant pressure of the match for Zverev, and a test for that newly-won mental focus. And he came through with flying colours, going for his shots to take the set, 6-4.

Thiem was in deep water: no man in the Open era had come back after losing the first two sets to win a US Open final. Indeed it was 16 years since a man had done so in any Major singles final. Sure enough, Zverev held to love, and then pressed Thiem into errors and the break, 2-1.

Thiem, though, was finding his range and rhythm, and dug in to break back. His serve began to hit the mark, the rallies grew longer, and Zverev seemed to back off from his net attacks, drawn almost hypnotically into baseline rallies. And all at once, he faced set points. Thiem converted immediately, 6-4.

The longer the match, the longer the rallies, the more Thiem thrived. At the key moment in the fourth set, Thiem broke down the Zverev serve and took the set, 6-3. The German had lost his way, drawn into long rallies that drew errors and an immediate break of serve in the fifth. Could he regain his focus, and reapply the style of tennis that had earned him his original lead? An immediate break back suggested perhaps he could.

Zverev did try to reintroduce more variety, a few drops and slices, but Thiem was just as determined to keep the game on his terms. They headed deep into the set and past three and a half hours, each working hard to hold serve. Finally, Zverev got another break chance and made the winning pass to take the lead, 5-3. But nerves took a hold, he hit three unforced errors and was broken straight back.

Thiem produced two of the best passes of the match to hold his serve, 5-5, and found another to immediately pressure Zverev. The Austrian pummeled the ball, and broke: Now he would serve for the match—but not before a visit from the physio.

Remarkably, Zverev was not done, and broke back to take this see-sawing marathon to a deciding tie-break. Thiem was limping with Achilles and thigh stiffness, but he needed to survive just a few more minutes. A 14th and 15th double fault from Zverev helped the Austrian cause, but he made errors on two match points, 6-6.

Finally, though, on the dot of four hours, Thiem converted a third, 7-6(6), and in contrast with every other match in the tournament, the two joined hands and embraced.

What was joy for Thiem, a first Major title, was bitter disappointment for the other in his first Major final. He wept as he sent thanks to his parents, who were unable to travel with him due to positive Covid-19 status. His time will come, but for now, it’s Thiem time.

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