Dominic Thiem was playing his fourth Grand Slam final at 27. He had been blanked in his first, against Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2018. He learned from that and became the first man born in the 1990s to win a set in a Major final the next year at the same stage. He took two sets when he played his next, this time against Novak Djokovic at the 2020 Australian Open, but fell short in the fifth set.
Three finals, three sets won and many lessons learnt.
By a twist of fate, he got to his fourth Grand Slam final as the favourite against first-time finalist Alexander Zverev. But this ‘favourite’ tag seemed to weigh heavily on him as he struggled to start well and soon was down a set and a break. Zverev, four years his junior, was the far better player on court with 24 winners in the first set two sets to Thiem’s 12.
No player had come from two sets down to win the US Open since 1949 and only four had done that in any Grand Slam final in the Open era. But Thiem didn’t need to know that statistic. All he knew was that he had to start fighting.
But if there was one non Big Four player who could come back from a beatdown to win a Grand Slam, it had to be Thiem. The Austrian won the first US Open final to be decided by a fifth-set tiebreak 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(6) and became the first man born in the 1990s to win a Grand Slam.
It had to be like this – my career was always like the match today – many ups and downs and I love the way it turned out,” he tweeted after the match. It seemed about right in a match that had plenty of twists and turns, scrappy points and sensational shots.
A rollercoaster till the end
Zverev, who had to fightback after disastrous starts in both his quarter-final and semi-final matches, was out of the blocks in no time in the final. Solid on serve, he just missed one first serve point, served and volleyed to near perfection and faced one break point. On the other hand, Thiem’s steady serve suffered from the yips as he got just 37% first serves in and gave up a double break with constant errors.
The second set followed the same pattern as Thiem went down a double break after atrocious serving against someone with deep groundstrokes and was 1-5 down. He saved three set points on serve and then a fourth with Zverev serving for the set, to get his first break of the match. It was not enough as the fifth seed served it out in the next game.
Down a break for the third straight set, it looked like Thiem’s serve and margins had all but abandoned him when he engineered a break back. In the crucial fourth game of the third set, he mounted a comeback, facilitated by the younger player’s nerves as he suddenly looked the favourite. A sizzling one-handed backhand, a double fault, a parry at the net and the Austrian converted his fourth break point to put the set back on serve.
From then on, the US Open final took several roles: it was a gladiatorial battle and a scrappy dogfight, it was a hustle as well as a heist, it was a meltdown, a fightback. More poetically, it was a reminder of just how difficult it is to win a Grand Slam in a men’s tennis era dominated by rare champions.
Now, Zverev is good on defense but it is a player who lives and dies by his serve which can be so extreme, it’s hard to keep track. But it is under pressure that it is at its most decisive, that is to say it crumbles more often than not.
In the face of resistance, it went awry and serving to stay in the third set, it gave way with two doubles faults, two more tame strokes and just like that Thiem had his foot in the door.
The fourth set was crucial to Zverev but it quickly became a cagey affair as both players tried to play safe. Both knew it was only a matter of time before either one’s serve or the other’s reserve stumbled.
It was the 23-year-old who gift-wrapped the only a break in the fourth with a double fault and a netted forehand to take it the distance. He committed 12 unforced errors to Thiem’s two in the set and it was a margin he would not recover from.
As the fourth set meandered into the fifth, there were many who complained about the quality of the match. Both Thiem and Zverev committed many seemingly naive errors: the Austrian’s extraordinarily deep return position even against a second 90-mph serve, the German’s failure to prepare for a passing shot after rushing to attack the net. And then there were the more straightforward errors: Zverev’s count of double faults at crucial moments and Thiem’s inability to get his lines straight consistently.
Yes, this was a Grand Slam final between two of the brightest and highly-rated 1990s prospects in men’s tennis but it was also the youngest men’s Grand Slam final in a long time. It was not a question of whose legs would give way but whose mind would hold on. And when the final veered into the experience over enterprise territory, there had to be just one winner.
Yet, there were enough last-ditch theatrics as first the intensity, then the insanity and finally the quality of the decider peaked. There were four breaks of serve in the final five games of the match.
Zverev was broken in the first game of the fifth set but he broke right back as this time, Thiem gifted him a double fault. The younger man tried to psych himself up, the shouts of ‘Come on’ and fist pumps getting louder and bolder and the energy seemed to work.
Zverev got another break and had a chance to serve for the championship. He was broken. In consecutive games.
Thiem then had the chance to serve it out but needed a trainer for cramps on his thigh and was broken for 6-6.
Nerves, nerves all around.
A tiebreaker seemed fitting to decide this rollercoaster final. The 14 points were short but no less of a hustle with two double faults and the first two championship points squandered by wrong shot selection.
But when Zverev sent a backhand wide on the third, Thiem’s time had finally come. He lay flat on the ground, in exhaustion and ecstasy, as his opponent came up to him. The old friends did their special handshake and hugged – technically, against the rules – but a mark of the bond they share. Their emotional post-match speeches, after four hours of fluctuating play, were a poignant conclusion.
If this is the first of many Grand Slam finals between the two, then the rollercoaster marathon seemed like a fitting start for these players who have had to work extra hard to breakthrough at this level.