The year is 2018 – Alexander Zverev has won his third ATP Masters 1000 title – the only active player other than the Big Four to have three – and claimed the season-ending ATP Finals.
The year is 2019 – Dominic Thiem has won a tour-leading five ATP titles including his first Masters 1000 title, reached his second Grand Slam final finishing as the runner-up at both French Open and ATP Finals.
Solid seasons, titles, wins over Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But not enough to make a mark at the biggest tournaments – the Grand Slams.
But 2020 changed that. In a way that is both fittingly chaotic and cathartic, the first Grand Slam of the ‘Next Gen’ – a term used loosely to describe any player younger than the Big Three – is between Thiem and Zverev.
The two will clash in their first US Open final for the chance to become the first 1990s-born Major champion. It will be a rematch of this year’s Australian Open semi-final, another first for both. The Austrian second seed beat last year’s finalist Daniil Medvedev in straight sets while the German fifth seed came back from two sets down to beat Pablo Carreno Busta in the semi-finals.
Thiem and Zverev have been the most consistent youngsters in the ATP Top 10 for the last three years. Between them, they have a number of telling records for the 1990s generation. Zverev has the most ATP Masters 1000 titles while Thiem has the most Grand Slams finals for a male player born in the 1990s.
If one had to ask, till about 18 months ago, who would be the ‘90s kids to make a breakthrough at a Major, it would be these two. Yet, a combination of their own erratic performances and inexperience in the best-of-five format meant they didn’t make enough deep runs at Grand Slams.
Thiem backed this promise at the French Open, reaching consecutive finals in 2018 and 2019 but was stuck with the clay-court grinder tag. Zverev’s best was two quarter-final losses at Roland Garros. Meanwhile, a much younger Stefanos Tsitsipas who made his Grand Slam semi-final breakthrough at Australian Open 2019 while Daniil Medvedev broke rank to be the first of the ‘90s gen to make a Major final on hard courts at US Open 2019.
Maybe the pressure of being the next best got to Thiem and Zverev at some level. Maybe they were destined to remain players who shone on the ATP Tour but struggled at Slams. Maybe they lacked the mindset as one’s serve and other’s reserve floundered.
But that finally changed at the start of a new decade as an aggressive Zverev made his first semi-final and a relentless Thiem his first hard-court final at Australian Open. The Austrian beat the German, went on to lose to Djokovic in the final and gave us a glimpse of what the future could hold.
That’s when the coronavirus pandemic hit and the sport was shut for six months. The two were not exactly far from controversy during the break, mainly for their activities after the fateful Adria Tour. Zverev infamously said the break would reveal the truly hard-working players while Thiem played every exhibition match possible only to lose his first match on return.
The pandemic seemed to take things back to square one. But in a twist, it also ensured a Grand Slam main draw without Federer (knee surgery) and Nadal (safety reasons) and then saw top seed Novak Djokovic being defaulted for hitting a line judge. It meant that the future was here for the two men long touted as the successors of the Big Three. And they didn’t disappoint this time.
Strangely, the way they reached the US Open final was almost a reversal of their careers so far.
A few years back, the 23-year-old Zverev was the teenage rising star who reached a career high ranking of world No 3 in 2017 while the 27-year-old Thiem, who reached No 3 only this year, had a more slow-and-steady run with early success only on the red dirt.
But in the last year, the trajectory changed as Zverev had a poor 2019 with on-and-off-court issues while Thiem changed his approach, coach and schedule to become a legitimate force on hard-courts as well, despite a first-week exit at three of the four Slams.
At the 2020 US Open, it was Thiem who showed his experience and enterprise as he cruised through losing just one set to 2014 champion Marin Cilic. Medvedev, who was yet to drop a set, served for the second and third set in the semi-final yet it was Thiem who won it in tiebreak, playing a clever game by mixing sliced backhands and net play.
On the other hand, the Zverev roller-coaster was on full display with improbable comebacks wins against Borna Coric and Carreno Busta in the quarters and semis. When his serve – which teeters between extremes – misfired and his groundstrokes caused errors, he buckled down for a gritty over pretty win.
While Thiem was all consistent power and pace, Zverev went for patience and percentage: both actions that would have been almost unlikely a year ago. This set up one of the most intriguing – and youngest – men’s singles final in recent Grand Slam history.
First-timer Zverev is the youngest male finalist since Djokovic was 23 at the 2010 US Open while Thiem, who turned 27 last week, is in his fourth Major final and first without Nadal or Djokovic at the other end.
Thiem is 7-2 versus Zverev in head-to-head matchups and only three of these have ended in straight sets. They have played three times before at Majors, and Thiem has won all three, while Zverev has won the last big final they played – the 2018 Madrid Masters.
Despite the contrasting semi-finals, this will be a keenly and evenly contested final. Strap in, the future is here in a Grand Slam clash that feels both fresh yet was a long-time coming.
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