After a U.S. Open like none that we have ever seen, we were treated to a Men’s Championship match that did not disappoint.
In a match for the ages, Dominic Thiem of Austria beat German star Alexander Zverev in a 4 hour display of effortful, mentally tough tennis to win the U.S. Open. The match went the absolute distance, being decided in a fifth set tiebreaker. Both men were going for their first U.S. Open Championship and first grand slam title.
Coming into the final, Thiem was the heavy favorite. In their nine previous matchups, Zverev had only won two of them. Thiem was also playing the best tennis of his young career before the pandemic, and is ranked number three in the world, behind only Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Zverev was number seven in the world coming in, but few thought he had a chance to go toe to toe with Thiem.
This match did look one-sided in the first hour, but not in the fashion most expected. Zverev came out extremely aggressive, giving Thiem few opportunities to break, and taking advantage of his struggles on first serves. The first set was pure domination from Zverev, winning handily six games to two.
The second set began with more of the same. Zverev broke Thiem on just his second service game of the set. Zverev continued to dominate for much of the set, going up 5-1, and with a set point on Thiem’s serve. The young Austrian survived to win that game, and although he lost the set 6-4, that saved set point may have been the turning point in the match. He broke Zverev for the first time that set and made him work to win the set.
Nevertheless, he was down two sets to nothing in a grand slam final. This is a deficit that is extremely difficult to climb out of for even the all-time greats. But Thiem came out with an energy that had no regard for what the scoreboard said. Zverev was still on his A-game, but Thiem was now matching him shot for shot, and found his service game. They traded breaks early on, and were on serve with Thiem up five games to four. This was the first time Zverev was under real pressure to hold his serve in the match, and it showed. He began to tighten up, and Thiem won the game at 15, giving him the third set.
At this point, Zverev had visibly lost the momentum of the match. His complacency with the lead had allowed Thiem to find his game. The fourth set was a visual representation of that trend. Thiem was back to playing the technically sound kind of tennis he was used to playing. His serve was working on all cylinders, and his shot placement and variety had Zverev guessing for the entire set. He controlled it all the way through, and won 6-3.
Entering the fifth and deciding set, both players were clearly beginning to run out of gas. When asked after the match about his physical status in the fifth set Thiem said, “I began cramping towards the end of the fifth set… luckily the belief was stronger than the body today”. The fatigue from both competitors slowed the pace of the match, and Thiem’s momentum became less of a factor. Neither player could consistently hold serve, and traded several breaks. Zverev had a chance to serve for the match at 5-3, but once again fell victim to the nerves, and lost the game. It felt inevitable that this match would end in a fifth set tiebreaker. In the end Thiem just had a little bit more in the tank, winning the tiebreak 8-6.
After the winning point, Thiem fell to the court, exhausted and victorious. The competitors embraced at the net, understanding that this final will be one that goes down in tennis history. The trophy presentation was an emotional one, two rivals and friends showing their admiration for one another after a true battle.
Following this match, both players will begin preparing for a quick turnaround to compete in the french open starting September 21. For either of these young stars to have a shot at winning there, they will have to go through Rafael Nadal, the best clay court tennis player of all time. Whatever happens there, it will be hard pressed to stack up with the end to this year’s battle for New York.