NEW YORK (AP) – A U.S. Open like no other ended like no other – with an unprecedented fifth set tiebreaker as Dominic Thiem became the first man in 71 years to win the final after dropping the first two sets.
So close to defeat in a near-empty Arthur Ashe Stadium – fans banned due to the coronavirus pandemic – Thiem slowly turned things around against a faltering Alexander Zverev to take a 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6 for -3, 7-6 (6) win over Flushing Meadows for his first Grand Slam title.
The match ended with both men suffering from leg cramps and, clearly, nerves.
“Somehow,” said Thiem, a 27-year-old from Austria, “the faith was stronger than the body today, and I’m super happy about that.”
When a backhand from Zverev landed wide on the third championship point, a tired Thiem fell on his back well behind the baseline and covered his face with his hands. When he got up, he was met by Zverev, who walked across the net to fold his hands and then embraced his friend and foe, two landmarks rarely seen in this age of social aloofness.
Thiem then rested his head on the taller Zverev’s shoulder, who himself came within two points of what would have been his first major triumph.
“I wish we could have two winners today,” said Thiem. “I think we both deserved it.”
He is the first man to win the US Grand Slam tournament after trailing 2-0 in sets in the final since Pancho Gonzalez faced Ted Schroeder in 1949 at an event then known as the US Championships, which was held in Forest Hills.
The event was never settled by a fifth set tiebreaker; never had a major tournament until Novak Djokovic beat Roger Federer that way at Wimbledon in 2019.
“I was a few games away, a few points away,” said Zverev, who was trying to give Germany its first male Grand Slam champion since Boris Becker in the 1990s. “I am 23 years old. I don’t think this is my last chance.”
Zverev was shocked when he said his parents had not been able to travel to New York because they tested positive for COVID-19, even though he said they are now healthy.
As Thiem stepped forward to pose for photos with his shiny new piece of hardware, Zverev stayed a few yards behind, one hand clutching his less impressive silver tray and the other on one hip.
The process took 4 hours and 2 minutes. And to think: after only 1 1/2 hours, Zverev was two sets ahead and a break in the third at 2-1.
“The match turned around when he broke me for the first time in the third set,” said Zverev. “He started playing a lot better, and I started playing a lot worse.”
Zverev should have known from all people that what could have seemed like an impossible hill to climb, for Thiem was indeed achievable. After all, in Thursday’s semifinals, it was Zverev who trailed 2-0 in sets against Pablo Carreño Busta before returning to win.
Thiem started the day 0-3 in the Grand Slam finals, but in those others he always faced a member of the Big Three of men’s tennis. This time he was the favorite and showed up nervous, but eventually worked his way out as Zverev went from calm and confident to passive and pushed around.
The fifth set went back and forth just like the other four, the errors increased with the tension and history ahead.
Thiem broke in the opening game when Zverev shot a pair of fore hands. Zverev immediately broke back – and broke the silence with a rare cry of “Come on!” – when Thiem made a double mistake.
Then it was Zverev’s turn to lead the way and grab a 5-3 lead when Thiem sent a backhand wide down and leaned forward gasping for breath.
But with a chance to serve out the biggest win of his burgeoning career, Zverev hesitated and was instantly broken when he pushed a volley into the net.
That started a three-game run for Thiem, who broke and broke 6-5 and earned his own chance to serve when Zverev hit a backhand, followed by a long forehand.
After a trainer checked his right leg during the subsequent switchover, Thiem also failed to seal the deal and went to the tiebreaker. Zverev double faulted twice and offered a second of service at 110 mph, about half the speed he is capable of.
While this was No. 7 Zverev’s first Slam final, this was the first Thiem would win with No. 3, after losing 12-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros in 2018 and 2019.then to eight-time Australian Open champion Djokovic at Melbourne Park in February – before the pandemic turned the world upside down and stopped tennis for five months.
Rather than wild applause and loud screams hailing great exchanges, Sunday’s soundtrack came mainly from outside the biggest tennis court, courtesy of roaring airplanes, roaring trains, revving car engines, honking car horns and wailing sirens. Every now and then there was polite applause from the dozens of tournament staff allowed in the stands – and deep into the game the players’ entourages screamed.
But the louder audience noise heard by TV viewers was fake, added by the broadcaster.
Unable to draw on support in what has always been an electrical environment, on a night that felt more like a glorified practice session than a game with so much at stake, both men were sometimes sluggish, listless, even. The game was hardly perfect: they combined 120 casual mistakes into just 95 winners. In a curious parallel, Zverev balanced his 15 aces with 15 double faults, and Thiem had eight in each category.
Normally, the U.S. Open every Grand Slam season, but what about 2020 was normal?
Wimbledon was canceled for the first time since World War II, while the French Open was postponed from its originally scheduled start in May and is now starting in two weeks.
Another way this whole event was different: Federer, Nadal and Djokovic had won the previous 13 major trophies. But Federer and Nadal did not go to the U.S. Open, while Djokovic defaulted in the fourth round for accidentally hitting a linesman with a ball that he hit with fury after dropping a match.
Thiem – barely, just – was the one who took the opportunity to sneak into the club of champions.
What a relief. I mean it was obviously a lot of pressure in the game, enormous emotions, ”said Thiem. “It’s hard to stay there and still believe. But I did. “