After two hours of relentlessly physical play, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev had reached a third-set tiebreaker. Up to this point, neither of these two old friends and sometime rivals had been able to pull away from the other.
They had split the first two sets. They had sat through a delay due to a lighting issue in Rod Laver Arena, and listened to a full-throated singalong of “Sweet Caroline.” Thiem, in his leaping exuberance, had taken a couple of tumbles, and his stomach had been roiled by nerves. Zverev had, for the most part, maintained his poker face; but the strain showed when he threw in a couple of wild double faults and shanked a key smash 10 feet long.
Overall, the German and the Austrian had done their ATP generation proud, and proved that they could take over a Grand Slam semifinal stage all by themselves. Between them, they hit 85 winners—43 for Thiem, 42 for Zverev.
Finally, in virtually identical third and fourth-set tiebreakers, Thiem revealed the difference between the two players, and breadth of his skills. Both times he jumped out to quick 3-0 leads. He started the third-set tiebreaker with a delicate half-volley and an ace; he started the fourth-set breaker with a service winner and a point-winning forehand.
Both times, though, Zverev closed the gap, and forced Thiem to find another level. Both times Thiem did. At 5-3 in the third-set tiebreaker, Thiem stepped forward and belted a forehand winner to make it 6-3. He followed that with a backhand winner for the set. In the fourth-set tiebreaker, serving at 4-3, Thiem came up with his biggest shots of the night: a pair of inside-out, 100-m.p.h. forehand winners that Zverev could only watch fly past him. At 6-4, Thiem put a bow on his performance with another touch-volley winner.
“I was feeling nervous, I was putting so much energy, so much effort in, my stomach was not ready for that,” Thiem said of a match, and a tournament, that has pushed him literally to the physical limit. Two days earlier, he had survived a similarly draining four-setter—and recorded one of the biggest wins of his career—against Rafael Nadal.
The way Thiem played the two tiebreakers against Zverev on Friday was a showcase for why he has made slow but steady progress on hard courts, and why, at 26, he has reached his first Grand Slam final on the surface. For years, this natural clay-courter had been content to do what he did on dirt: Camp out behind the baseline, jump high in the air, and hit with monster topspin—too much of his energy went upward, rather than forward. He was also content to hit his one-handed backhand too often. That was an understandable choice, considering how good it is. Now, though, Thiem is running around his backhand more and looking for more forehands, and you can see the difference in his hard-court results. Rather than hang back in the tiebreaker, Thiem took charge with his forehand in a way that Zverev couldn’t.
With this win, Thiem is back where he has been at Roland Garros the last two years: On the brink of his first Grand slam title; on the brink of a changing-of-the-guard moment; on the brink of an elevation in status. Thiem’s hyper-athletic game and humble, down-to-earth demeanor have garnered him a growing fan base. Beating Novak Djokovic in the final here would put him on the sporting-world’s radar in an entirely new way.
Is he ready to take that final step? First, we have to ask if his body will be ready. Thiem will be coming off two very tough, tight, four-set wins, while Djokovic, who hasn’t lost a set since his first-round match nearly two weeks ago, will be coming in with two days rest. Thiem acknowledged the uphill nature of the battle he faces.
“It’s unbelievable, twice in Roland Garros finals, twice facing Rafa,” Thiem said. “Now facing Novak here, he’s the king of Australia, so I’m always facing the kings of the Grand Slams in these finals.”
Thiem might wish for an easier opponent, but the tennis world should savor this latest clash of the ATP generations. Whether he wins this one or not, Thiem is a future to root for.