Dominic Thiem never stopped believing he could win the 2020 US Open

    Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for over 35 years, mostly recently for ESPN. He is a former WTA Writer of the Year and the author of numerous books, including the classic “The Courts of Babylon” and the New York Times bestseller (with Pete Sampras), “A Champion’s Mind.”

NEW YORK — Dominic Thiem has been repeatedly knocked out in Grand Slam finals by the game’s icons, but he has always popped to his feet and dusted himself off, eager to try again. His persistence finally paid off in a big way as he won the US Open on an extraordinary Sunday afternoon in Arthur Ashe Stadium, becoming the first man in 71 years to win this title after losing the first two sets of the final.

Thiem fell far behind but patiently tracked down and outlasted his friend and rival, first-time Grand Slam finalist Alexander Zverev, in a match that lasted a tick over four hours by the score of 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (6). Late in the third set, Zverev was just six points from wrapping up the match in just two hours.

When the unpredictable match that featured 15 breaks and 31-break points finally ended on a backhand error by Zverev, Thiem fell to the court, his body forming a nearly perfect “X.” He briefly covered his face with his hands, then rose to meet his good friend, who had come around the net to meet him.

There was no socially distanced racket tap to end this one. The men exchanged a stylized handshake of their own and hugged. Zverev cradled Thiem’s head in his right hand, and Thiem let his head rest on the taller man’s shoulder, as if he were the one he needed consolation.

Thiem went to his chair and sat back, beaming. Soon he started laughing. Zverev on the far side of the umpire’s chair, chin resting in his steepled hands, gazing straight ahead. He sat that way for a good long while.

These were the youngest pair of Grand Slam finalists since the Australian Open of 2012, where the opponents were Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. This match would not suffer in comparison to that one, and it hit an even higher note of poignancy because of the friendship between Thiem and Zverev.

Thiem said in his trophy presentation speech, “We [Zverev and Thiem] started to know each other in 2014, when we both were ranked close to 100. We developed a great friendship. Then our rivalry began in 2016 [in Munich, Germany]. We made great things happen on the court and off since then. It’s amazing how far our journey brought us to share this moment. I wish we could have two winners, because we both deserved this.”

To some, Thiem looked to deserve it just a little bit more, and not only because he’s 27 to Zverev’s 23 years of age. Since he first made the French Open final in 2018, Thiem has established himself as a successful challenger to the Big Three — Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Thiem has a respectable 14-18 record against the trio (Zverev isn’t too shabby either at 7-11). Thiem accumulated more wins (211) on the ATP from 2016 to 2019 than any other pro. What he failed to do was break through in his previous three Grand Slam final appearances, most recently in February at the Australian Open. Djokovic shut him down there, adding to the two lossed in the 2018 and 2019 French Open finals by Nadal. But Thiem was eager to try again.

“It was easier for sure in a different era to win big titles,” he said after that Australian Open final. “That’s 100 percent sure. But I’m happy I can compete with these guys on the best level. I really hope also that I win my maiden Slam when they’re still around, because it just counts more.”

Those icons are still around, although only one of them — Djokovic — made the trip to New York to play in the “double in the bubble” events. Djokovic was unbeaten in 18 matches in 2020 before the lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. He picked up right where he left off at the prequel to this US Open, winning the Western & Southern Open. He was the heavy favorite to win his 18th major title here, especially with Federer out for year and Nadal and Stan Wawrinka choosing to remain in Europe preparing for the French Open.

But Djokovic was defaulted during his fourth-round match after inadvertently hitting a line judge with a ball hit in frustration. Thiem’s reaction was telling. “From the moment Novak was out of the tournament, it was clear that there’s going to be a new Grand Slam champion,” he said. “From that moment on, that was also out of my mind. I was just focusing on the remaining guys left in the draw.”

The main stumbling block for Thiem at that point looked to be last year’s US Open runner-up, Daniil Medvedev. Some called that semifinal the “real final.” When Thiem won, he found himself the favorite in a Grand Slam for the first time. He said he felt ready. “It was really tough to digest that loss in Australia, as I was super close back then. I’m happy that I gave myself in a pretty short time after that another chance.”

Zverev also felt prepared to win his first major, even though the odds seemed stacked against him. He had won just six matches in 2020 leading up to this event and, worse yet, he had been fighting a bad case of the serving yips. He had slowly slipped from a career-high ranking of No. 3 to his current No. 7, and his record against top-10 opponents in majors was 0-7 with two of those losses coming against Thiem. Zverev looked shaky in his two previous matches. He was almost eliminated in the semifinals by Pablo Carreno Busta, who won the first two sets before Zverev shook off the cobwebs.

Thiem knew firsthand how dangerous his friend could be when he dialed in that curious combination of overwhelming power and surprisingly good defense. The two had battled through a long, close four-set semifinal at the Australian Open. It was the first time Zverev managed to go that deep at a major.

“The media put me as a favorite,” Thiem said. “But I remembered how tough he was in Australia.”

Adding to Thiem’s concerns, he felt “super tight” all day leading up to the match and struggled with his own expectations all afternoon and evening.

Aware that he could not afford another slow start, Zverev played a nearly flawless first set. He was alert and aggressive, while Thiem was tight and slow. The set went by swiftly, with Zverev clocking 16 winners. He won 12 of 13 first serve points, seven of his eight net approaches and made only six unforced errors. His momentum carried over to the next set and beyond, as Thiem continued to struggle with unforced errors and poor movement. But early in the third set, Zverev — fresh off a service break that put him up 2-1 — took his foot off the gas.

“It was hard to stay there and still believe [I could win],” Thiem said of that stage. “I was way too tight, my legs were heavy, my arms were heavy, but luckily I was able to free myself up and from there. My self-belief just got stronger and stronger.”

Thiem was able to break back thanks to a few errors by Zverev, and the match took on a different look. Zverev failed to attack, while Thiem overcame his serving woes. The match became a struggle of shifting momentum, high anxiety and fluctuating quality from both men.

Thiem’s experience in important matches against elite players came in handy as the match ground toward conclusion, but he said he found himself unable to tap into it.

“I wanted this title so much,” Thiem said. “And [during the match] of course it was always in my head, ‘If I lose this one, it’s zero for four [in Grand Slam finals].’ And always in your head also is the question, ‘If I lose this, is the chance ever coming back again? All these thoughts are not great to play your best tennis, to play free. So honestly, the experience didn’t help at all.”

The obstacle for Thiem was that Zverev wanted it just as badly. But as the match progressed, the sharp edge of his aggression began to dull on the grit in Thiem’s resistance. His forehand, fierce in the early stages, began to misfire more frequently. He lost a bit of speed on his serve. As the score approached the tiebreaker in the final set, a little anxiety crept in.

“I was super close to being a Grand Slam champion,” Zverev said later. “I was just a few points away [early in the match]. But to me, I had a lot of chances in the fifth set.”

The match had one last surprise in store in the tiebreaker. Thiem, who appeared to be cramping, was struggling. But Zverev was unable to fully exploit his condition because, as he later said, his own left quadricep muscle was beginning to seize up. It prevented him from getting enough oomph on his serve to break through Thiem’s defenses one final, decisive time.

When it was finally over, Thiem lay there on the floor of Ashe, at long last a Grand Slam champion. He was exhausted, But more than anything, he felt unburdened.

“It was such a big relief,” he said. “It was such huge pressure, such huge emotions in that match.”

There were critics of this tournament from the get-go, asserting that it deserved an “asterisk” due to the lack of fans, the strange and unpredictable conditions in the bio-secure bubble, and the absence of Federer and Nadal. When Djokovic fell out and Thiem belted his way into a final against the most overlooked of contenders, some predicted a routine win by No. 2 seed Thiem. Instead, we witnessed a final match won by a deserving champion who had waited for a long time, keeping the faith even as two legends took him down him in previous attempts. Thiem didn’t care, He considered it a privilege to be able to match strokes with them.

Thiem earned his merit badge at this US Open, and the USTA and New York City got the final it deserved.

As Stacey Allaster, the US Open tournament director, said earlier in the day, “We are closing down this very historic moment for our sport here in New York City with a very healthy and safe US Open. We’re back. New York rallied. The US Open rallied. That I think is the other big takeaway for us. We’re back.”

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