2020 Top Matches, No. 2: Thiem outlasts Zverev on high-wire at US Open

2020 Top Matches, No. 2: Thiem outlasts Zverev on high-wire at US Open

There were both dull and head-scratching moments, but they were largely forgotten as the final Flushing Meadows showdown wound to its painfully tense final act.

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Dominic Thiem was the winner,” I wrote a few hours after the US Open men’s final ended, “but when it was over, the focus shifted to Alexander Zverev. He sat on his sideline chair and stared blankly ahead. He teared up during the trophy ceremony as he told his parents how much he missed them, and that he would make them proud someday. While Thiem broke through as a Slam champion, Zverev broke through as a player to root for.”

Zverev’s breakthrough “as a player to root for” turned out to be short-lived. A few weeks after the Open, his former girlfriend Olya Sharypova accused him of domestic violence. While Zverev has denied the allegations, it’s hard for fans to know what to think of the 23-year-old German now, let alone to cheer for him.

When we look back at this bewildering, thrilling, gobsmacking match, it will be impossible for many of us to feel the same, uncomplicated sympathy that we may have felt for Zverev as he froze up in the Ashe Stadium spotlight. But that doesn’t have to take away from our appreciation for his opponent’s long-awaited Slam-winning performance, or for the heart-in-your-mouth drama that unfolded over four hours and one minute that evening. It was awful, it was brilliant, it was always imperfect. There were dull moments and head-scratching moments, but they were largely forgotten as the match wound to its painfully tense final act. By the end, it was like watching two guys on high-wire together, trying not to fall off.

It was also like watching two guys trying to do something they had never done before. Here, at last, was their chance to win a Grand Slam title without having to go through one of the Big 3. For the 27-year-old Thiem, who was playing his fourth major final, it was a “be careful what you wish for” situation. His night would be a battle to overcome two opponents: the one on the other side of the net, and the one in his head.

“I was so tight in the beginning,” Thiem said. “Maybe it was not even good that I played in previous major finals. I mean, I wanted this title so much, and of course it was also in my head that if I lose this, it’s 0-4. It’s always in your head.”

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Zverev, by contrast, was loose to start. So loose that he became an entirely different player. He hit his forehand with purpose instead of rolling it in. He came to the net and used his albatross-like wingspan to knock off winning volleys. He took the ball on the rise. He went up 6-2, 5-1.

And then something happened to him. You could see it in his face and his walk. The thought of winning a Grand Slam had, in a matter of minutes, gone from being a distant dream to a reality. With that change, it had also became a barrier in his mind, one that kept him from simply playing tennis. He stopped nailing his forehand. He stopped closing out points with volleys. He started going for 130-m.p.h. second serves and double faulting, at strangely crucial times.

“The match turned when he broke me I think for the first time in the third set,” Zverev said. “I think he started playing better and I started playing much worse. That’s when the match turned. But I still had plenty of chances after that.”

Thiem was erratic but aggressive in the third and fourth sets, while Zverev was in a fog, unsure of how to get past that final barrier and close out a Slam final. He would double fault 15 times and make 65 unforced errors.

The fifth set was the one to remember. No longer burdened with a lead, Zverev went back to playing proactively. At the same time, Thiem, after launching himself into his shots for three hours, had finally found a semblance of a groove. In the fifth, Thiem was like a man clinging to a cliff with his fingertips; somehow, despite struggling physically, he never fell off.

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Serving at 2-3, Thiem went down 0-30, then played four excellent points to hold. He went down 3-5, but survived when Zverev made four quick errors. Serving at 4-5, 30-30, Thiem took a massive cut at a forehand and put the ball on the outside of the sideline; another inch wider and it would have been match point for Zverev. Down 0-2 in the decisive tiebreaker, Thiem feathered in a perfect drop volley. At 6-6 in the tiebreaker, he drilled a forehand pass to set up his third match point, the one that he would finally win. Thiem never had his A game, but he kept firing anyway, and that’s what won him the match.

“It’s a Slam finals, I said myself, I mean, I’m playing bad, I’m way too tight, legs are heavy, arms are heavy,” Thiem said. “But I always hope and the expectations that at one point I free up….The belief was always there.”

“Somehow the belief was stronger than the body, and I’m super happy about that.”

This would be the only?title of 2020 for Thiem, who lost in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, and the final at the ATP’s year-end championships in London. But if his win didn’t signal a changing of the ATP guard, it did open a door to a possible new era in men’s tennis, one where different generations clash and collide on (relatively) equal footing. Most of us thought Thiem would have to figure out a way to overcome one of the Big 3 to win his first Slam. In the end, he had to figure out a way to defeat a different but equally formidable opponent: Himself.