In many ways, this year’s US Open was always going to be a bit of a strange one. No fans, COVID-19 impacting decisions, and Roger Federer taking the season off meant that 2020 was always going to be different. Still, once Rafael Nadal decided not to play (ostensibly due to health concerns, but almost certainly just a practical matter of preparing for the French Open) we were guaranteed one of the younger guard would be a finalist. After Novak Djokovic’s shocking default from the tournament, we were guaranteed a brand new Grand Slam champion.
Dominic Thiem came into the final as the favorite. Not only did he defeat tougher opponents, convincingly, along the way, but Alexander Zverev looked shaky in previous rounds. Zverev was crushed by Borna Coric in the opening set in the quarterfinal, and only some timely serving and two poor tiebreaks from Coric got the German through that match. The semifinal against Pablo Carreno Busta was even worse. Zverev was not very competitive in the first two sets. He flipped a switch and started playing well in the third set, and completed his first career comeback from two sets down.
On top of that, Thiem came into the match as a three-time Major finalist. He fell to Rafael Nadal in the final round of the 2018 and 2019 French Opens, and he lost a tight fifth set to Novak Djokovic in this year’s Australian Open final. Zverev, meanwhile, had reached just one Major semifinal before this (at the Australian Open this past January), and has a career history of struggling in Majors.
If that wasn’t enough, Thiem entered the match with an 8-2 head-to-head lead over Zverev. The German has always struggled in this direct matchup.
Yes, coming into the final, Dominic Thiem was a clear favorite.
Dominic Thiem vs Alexander Zverev
Thiem performed admirably in his other three Major finals, all against all-time great opponents. Very clearly, though, being the favorite in the biggest match of his career didn’t sit well with him. The Austrian was broken early in the first set, and then again, losing the set 6-2. The story repeated itself in the second set–though Thiem fought back a bit at the end–, and in under 80 minutes, Alexander Zverev had a 6-2 6-4 lead, and was one set away from his first Major title.
Zverev broke Thiem early in the third set, and it looked like the German was off to the races. Thiem fought back, though, breaking right back and making the third set a real fight. Eventually, Zverev’s serve cracked at 4-5, giving away the set. All of a sudden, Thiem was playing better, had all the momentum, and looked like the favorite. Still, a lot of work remained. Winning three straight sets is never easy, especially against a player of Zverev’s caliber.
As the fourth set went on, it was very clear that Thiem’s game was taking control. His slices started troubling Zverev, and the German stopped slapping winners to end long rallies. Both protected their serves early, though, so the set remained stressful for Thiem and his fans. That begin to change in the sixth game of the set. The Austrian put more returns in play, and won more points once Zverev came into net. Thiem opened up two break opportunities, but he couldn’t convert. Thiem found another chance on his next return game, and this time he didn’t miss it. One hold later, and we were headed to a fifth and final set.
It is fitting that both US Open finals this year went to deciding sets. Unlike Saturday’s women’s final, though, this deciding set wasn’t nearly as high quality. Zverev opened the set by donating his service game to Thiem with a double fault and several poor errors.
Playing with a lead for the first time in the match, Thiem’s nerves returned. He donated the break right back to Zverev, including with a double fault on break point. The pair traded holds of serve for a while after that, though both were shaky at times. Thiem won four straight points to hold from 0-30 at 2-3, but he looked exhausted when he reached 3-4. He brought it from 0-30 to 30-30, but two errors gave Zverev the break and the chance to serve for the match.
Zverev, though, had his own share of nerves serving for a maiden Slam title. He played a tight game and sent a few balls into the net, giving the break back to Thiem. Now the Austrian would have to serve at 4-5; being broken here would end the tournament. Thiem still appeared physically exhausted, and once again found himself at 30-30. This time, though, he held from that score–by hitting two incredible forehand winners–and the pressure returned to Zverev. Zverev didn’t play a terrible game, but a forehand winner from Thiem to start and a poor error at 30-30 gave the Austrian a massive break.
He had not played well with a lead all match, but Dominic Thiem needed just one solid service game to crown himself as a Grand Slam champion. Looking physically exhausted and noticeably limping, Thiem began the most important service game of his career. He went for big shots, but fell behind 0-30. Thiem saved one break point in the game, but he couldn’t save a second. This tight US Open final was headed to a tiebreak to decide it.
Thiem gave up a minibreak on his first service point, but Zverev double faulted it back two points later. With both players seemingly cramping (but Thiem worse), the tiebreak came down to who would make the fewest errors. Thiem hit his biggest serve of the match at 3-3 to win the point, and Zverev donated the next one with another double fault. Serving up 5-4, Dominic Thiem was once again two points away from being a Grand Slam champion. He only won one, and Zverev saved the next one for 6-6, but gave up the next point on his serve. One Zverev error later, Thiem fell to the court in exhaustion and jubilation as he joined Thomas Muster (1995 French Open) as the only Major champions in Austrian tennis history.
Both of these men should continue to compete for Slam titles for a long time. It would be shocking if we don’t see Dominic Thiem face Alexander Zverev in Major finals in the future. For now, though, the Austrian is on top–and the German will have to wait to dethrone him.