A Thiem Effort at the US Open

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Five years ago, the “Zverev-olution” had begun. Just as a New York play about Alexander Hamiton was the hottest thing on Broadway, another charismatic Alexander, Kid Zverev, was the hottest rookie in tennis. Again and again Nadal said the German would become No. 1.

With his long-legged speed, his unabashed ambition and fierce groundies he seemed like a surefire future champ. The guy was straight from central casting. He grew up in Germany, the homeland of Boris Becker and Steffi Graf, and he had nomadic, tennis-happy Russian parents, just like Stefanos Tsitsipas, Denis Shapovalov, Maria Sharapova, Sofia Kenin and Amanda Anisimova. Tall and fleet, Sascha was 6’ 6” – just like Juan Martin Del Potro, Daniil Medvedev, Marin Cilic, Sam Querrey and Karen Khachanov. He would end up getting the same agent as Roger. Of course, Federer’s results are “better-er,” yet Sascha has won three Masters titles, the 2018 ATP Finals, was a Laver Cup hero and rose to No. 3. But the poster boy of the Next Genners fell short at Slams.

The older, less charismatic Dominic Thiem did even better. He claimed Indian Wells and has at least four wins against each of the Big Three. But in three Slam championship finals, he couldn’t break their grip.

Then again, virtually no one has. After all, the relentless dominance of the Big Three is one of the great stories in tennis history. The last eight Slams were won by either Nole or Rafa, and the Big Three have won the last 14 Slams – plus, incredibly, 51 of the last 59 majors.

Now, on the eve of the US Open final, for the first time since the 2014 US Open, none of the terrific trio had reached a major final. Some thought, “No problem.” A morning sports reporter chirped, “Good! That sport sure needs some new blood!” And Denis Shapovalov was unsparing: “Those guys winning all the time,” he complained. “It’s boring.”

Now the conventional wisdom was simple. It was Thiem’s time. The No. 2 seed had dropped just one set in the entire tourney, had beaten Zverev in the Aussie Open semis and held a commanding 7-2 lead over the German. Yes, the 27-year-old Austrian was hardly a newbie. After all, John McEnroe had finished winning all his Slams, and Bjorn Borg had retired by the time they were 27. Domi had paid his dues. His groundies rivaled the best in the game. He stood back and whaled away. Plus, in the semis, Zverev had barely managed to come back and survive a five-set marathon against Pablo Carreno Busta.

But in the final, Zverev, who can deadlift 400 pounds, lifted his game. In the zone, he started fast, hit out and played first-strike tennis. He served big, he volleyed well. Calm and contained, powerful and focused, his forehand ran Thiem to the corners and his backhands went deep.

The Austrian was drum-tight and tentative. He seemed to be returning serve from the Bronx. His mind might have been on Mars, but later he admitted it was nerves and the weight of the moment that had undermined him.

On fire, Alexander the great sprinted to a 6-2, 6-4, 2-1 lead, and was poised to win – just four games from becoming the first German US Open champ since Boris Becker in 1989.

But Thiem is No. 3 for a reason, and at last, in the third set, the warrior settled in. His serve improved, he became more consistent and fought to prevail in long rallies. His slice backhand had more bite; Zverev’s serve had less. The German was broken twice and dropped the third set 4-6.

In the fourth set you could feel Zverev grind. His legs were heavy, his explosiveness was muted. His serve at times became a misadventure. He double-faulted deep in the fourth set and dumped a forehand into the net. Soon the resurgent Thiem, encouraged by a coach from Chile, got hot and evened the match at two sets all.

For the fourth straight time, a men’s Slam final would go to a fifth set. Now Zverev seemed to be fading. He lost his serve early – and perhaps his belief. “He’s even lost convictions on his challenges,” quipped John McEnroe. But the big man dug deep and blasted a lights-out backhand, broke back and fought to gain a 5-3 lead.

Sascha was now serving for history. But his fatigue overwhelmed his hope for glory – his quads began to cramp. Groundstroke errors and a flubbed volley allowed Thiem to break right back. The Austrian grabbed the momentum, broke, and gained a 6-5 lead. But his legs also said no. Like Zverev, Thiem served for the match.

Now the battle would be decided by a fifth-set tiebreak. One thought of all the go-to phrases tennis knows well: “Champions adjust,” “Pressure is privilege,” “The final set is all about heart.” In a pattern that mirrored the entire match, Zverev gained an early tiebreak lead, but then, not once, but twice he was betrayed by his Achilles heel: he twice double-faulted. Still, Thiem was hardly home free. Journalist Ubaldo Scanagatta said, “It was a script by Agatha Christie directed by Alfred Hitchcock.” The players felt the pressure. Their levels dipped, their serves were tepid. Thiem confided that he knew well the Big Three weren’t there. “That was in the back of the head, that’s why we were on nerves…in the fifth set tiebreak anyone could win.”

Thiem battled to a third championship point. There, on the fourth stroke, Sascha stumbled oh, so slightly and mishit a backhand into the alley. After 4:02 of brutal gladiatorial battle, it was, at last, Thiem’s time.

The first ever US Open winner from Austria fell on his back in relief and joy. Rarely has a tennis champion been so exhausted. For the first time since Pancho Gonzales, 70 years ago, a man came back from two sets down to win the coveted New York crown. We imagine that in Europe a Djoker offered a wry smile. In his Rome hotel, Rafa may well have whispered, “Felicidades.” And in his mountain villa, Roger probably offered a Federerarian appreciation. But now the Big Three no longer reign – long live the Big Three.

After Domi’s 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(6) win, McEnroe said, “That was the rollercoaster of rollercoasters…I find it a little hard to believe what I just witnessed for the last four hours.”

Rarely has there been a new champion who showed such huge heart as Domi, on the biggest stage in the game. Yes, few were on hand, but his will, grit and courage were the essence of athletic determination. Tennis will never forget. In a year when our very survival is all about team effort, Dominic delivered a singular Thiem effort.

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