It was the best of finals. It was the worst of finals. No-one will ever look back at Sunday night’s showpiece as a highlight reel of scintillating tennis. But the human drama – as Dominic Thiem struggled through crippling cramps to seize victory on a fifth-set tie-break – was unforgettable.
Thiem’s opponent, Alexander Zverev, was almost unable to finish his speech at the presentation ceremony, pulling away from the microphone twice as the tears overcame him. “Man, this is tough,” he whispered, in an echo of previous emotional speeches from the likes of Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
Zverev wept because the match had been on his racket a few minutes earlier. Having surrendered a commanding early lead, he fought back to serve for the title in the deciding set. He was the stronger, physically, down the home stretch. Yet his mental frailties – especially his flaky second serve – were too much of a handicap in the end.
Watching in the Amazon Prime commentary booth, Tim Henman was stunned by the numerous twists in the tale. “I’ve been around the game a long time,” he said, “and I’ve never seen anything like that. All credit to Dominic Thiem, that’s one of the gutsiest displays I have ever seen. The legs had gone, but the belief hadn’t.”
The last man to come back from a two-set deficit to win the US Open final was Pancho Gonzales, all the way back in 1949. Thiem should never have been in that position in the first place, but he was gripped by a strange malaise for the first hour.
In a complete role reversal of his slow starts over the previous week, Zverev showed up bright and punctual, with a perfectly prepared game plan. Whereas Thiem seemed to be trapped in one of those nightmares where you sleep through your alarm and arrive for the examination in your pyjamas.
He could barely land a first serve in the first two sets, while his groundstrokes – normally loaded with pace and vicious topspin – were curiously soggy, as if he were striking them with a wooden spoon rather than the usual space-age combination of graphite and polyester.
It was only in the third set that Thiem roused himself, lifting the average speed on his forehand to a punchy 85mph. He began to counter the Zverev gameplan, which had revolved around regular net-rushes and a determination to keep the points as short as possible. As the rallies lengthened, the balance of power swung back from Germany to Austria.
Soon we found ourselves in a fifth set – and then, eventually, the first deciding-set tie-break ever contested at the US Open. Thiem, who had injured his Achilles in his semi-final win over Daniil Medvedev, was struggling to walk at this stage. The rallies, previously full of power and vigour, now slowed to a crawl. The two men sliced the ball gently to and fro over the net like a pair of octagenarians enjoying their regular Sunday morning hit.
Thiem did somehow manage to summon up a 132mph serve in the middle of the tie-break – his fastest of the match – which was a rare feat considering that he could barely push up with his legs. Zverev’s second-serve yips then saw him bunt one just over the net at 68mph, the slowest serve of the entire tournament. One man was exhausted, the other wracked with debilitating tension. And perhaps the moral of the story is that a broken body will eventually overcome a doubting mind.
Thiem had his own choky moments. He butchered two match points with shaky forehand misses when the court was gaping wide open in front of him. But finally, on his third match point, Zverev scooped a backhand wide. The job was done, by a 2-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 scoreline. And men’s tennis had a new slam champion at last – the first since Marin Cilic won here in 2014.
Whether Thiem will be able to recover for the next big tournament – the rescheduled French Open, which starts in less than two weeks – remains to be seen. Tennis’s already brutal calendar has only been intensified by the pandemic. But as he hoisted the giant silver cup, and grinned for the photographers, he probably didn’t care one bit.