For the second consecutive singles final at this year’s US Open’s concluding weekend, the champion had to fight back from being a set down to claim the much coveted victor’s crown.
Dominic Thiem found himself, like Naomi Osaka 24 hours earlier, wondering what had hit him as Alexander Zverev surprised everyone with his powerful attacking game which didn’t allow the Austrian to settle into any sort of rhythm.
Thiem though, after three previous failed attempts in grand slam finals, finally claimed his first coming from two sets down to stun Zverev 2-6 4-6 6-4 6-3 7-6(6) in just over four hours in an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“We started to know each other back in 2014 and straight away started to develop a great friendship… and then a great rivalry,” Thiem revealed. “We’ve made great things happen on the court and off the court. It’s amazing how far our journey brought us to share this moment. I wish we could have two winners today. We both deserved it.”
With both players chasing their first Grand Slam title, it was Zverev who took immediate control over the favourite, racing out to a two set lead in just over an hour thanks to some excellent serving and the second seed’s series of frustrating errors no doubt a result of nerves considering the moment and the fear of failing at the last hurdle for a fourth time!
Zvverev’s powerful serve started to slow down in the third but even so, he pulled ahead 2-1 but with the trophy in sight he started to falter. Thiem broke him and started to gear up his game, breaking him for a second time to take the set and in the fourth, reeled off seven consecutive points to level the match at two-sets-all.
Zverev, who had never lost a match from two sets up in a major, fought hard and having lost his opening service game, broke back as the two combatants edged themselves closer to the finish line.
The first to make the lunge for that line was the German who broke Thiem to go 5-3 up and gain the opportunity to serve out only for the 23-year-old to falter and hand back that opportunity.
Two missed forehands put Zverev 0-30 down which he followed with two unforced errors no doubt to the relief of Thiem.
Thiem held for 5-all and then Zverev once again failed to hold leaving the Austrian with his first opportunity of serving out, but he required treatment to his upper leg before attempting to but even that didn’t help.
Thiem missed a forehand, Zverev hit an overhead and it was 0-30. Moments later though, the match headed into a tiebreaker, the first fifth-set tiebreaker ever in a US Open final.
Even without a crowd there was tension everywhere as the two protagonists tried to control their nerves and limbs in their effort to win their first major.
With both players now visibly struggling physically, Zverev got a quick mini-break for 2-0, which didn’t last long. Aided by two Zverev double faults, Thiem would arrived at two match points at 6-4 only for Zverev to level when the Austrian missed two forehands.
On his serve, Zverev tried again to rush the net on a wing and a prayer only to be passed easily and then it was all over when he produced an error on his backhand.
Thiem, finally a Grand Slam champion, fell to the court, soaked in sweat.
“I wanted this title so much, and of course there was also in my head that if I lose this one, it’s 0-4. It’s always in your head,” Thiem said. “Is this chance ever coming back again? This, that, all these thoughts, which are not great to play your best tennis, to play free.
“I think it’s obvious that I was very tight in the beginning. In the end, of course, we are both experienced enough and we both know that in a fifth-set tiebreak anyone can win. I think it’s very understandable that we both didn’t play our highest tennis anymore.
“When he served for the match, I was struggling physically, but I also thought that he is not the freshest anymore. I was just hoping to maybe get another chance, that he’s not serving that huge anymore like he did in the beginning of the match.
“I played a great game there and brought myself back into the match.”
Zverev was happy for his friend, albeit disappointed which showed with his tear filled eyes.
“I want to congratulate Dominic on the first of many Grand Slam titles. I wish you could have missed a little more so I could be holding that trophy up, but here I am giving the runner-up speech,” Zverev said.
“I want to thank my team for sticking with me. The past two years haven’t been easy in my tennis career. We’re definitely on the way up and I hope that one day we’re going to lift that trophy up together.”
Zverev reached his first Slam final after his first 0-2 comeback in the semi-finals but he’ll have to learn to live with a two-set plus a break lead loss in the final itself!
“Obviously being two sets to love and a break up in a Grand Slam final then losing is not easy,” Zverev added. “The match turned when he broke me, I think for the first time in the third set. I think he started playing much better and I started playing much worse. That’s when the match turned. But I still had plenty of chances after that.
“I was super close to being a Grand Slam champion. I was a few games away, maybe a few points away. For me what upset me the most is not the third set or something like that, it’s the fifth set. I had a lot of chances in the fifth set and didn’t use them.
“I’m 23 years old. I don’t think it’s my last chance. I do believe that I will be a Grand Slam champion at some point.”
Thiem has now won more Grand Slam matches than anyone this year (13-1 record) and at the forthcoming French, he could continue his run on his favourite surface in Paris.
“I think physically I’m going to be fine, 100%,” Thiem said looking ahead to Roland Garros where he was a finalist last year. “I’m going to have enough time to recover from all the troubles I had.
“It’s going to be or I expect that it’s going to be easier for me now in the biggest tournaments because, of course, I had it in the back of my head that I had a great career so far, way better career than I could ever dreamt of, but until today there was still a big part, a big goal missing.
“With this goal achieved, I think, and I hope, that I’m going to be a little bit more relaxed and play a little bit more freely at the biggest events.”
With Thiem’s triumph, comes a series of first, for instance, the first time the US Open has been won from two sets down since 1968 since the start of the Open era and the first in over 70 years; the first player to win his first major since Marin Cilic’s triumph at Flushing Meadows in 2014 and the first man born in the 1990s to win.
“I achieved a life goal, a dream of myself, which I had for many, many years,” Thiem said. “Of course, as a kid, as well, when I started to play tennis. But back then it’s so far away.”