US Open Breakthroughs—Thiem as a champ; Zverev as a player to root for

US Open Breakthroughs—Thiem as a champ; Zverev as a player to root for

They’ll play better finals in the future, but they may never give us one as unforgettable as Sunday’s in Flushing.

The 2020 US Open men’s final between Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev felt like an audition. Were the understudies ready to take the stage? Was a new generation of players and personalities finally ready to emerge from the long shadows of their legendary predecessors, and continue their tradition of classic Grand Slam finals?

Since 2016, Thiem and Zverev had been marketed as the leaders of the ATP’s “Next Gen.” Four years later, though, “next” still hadn’t turned to “now.” At 27, after three major-final losses, Thiem was in danger of becoming the Prince Charles of tennis—the man who was never allowed to be king. At 23, Zverev had lost the heir-apparent aura that once glowed like a halo from his Borgian blonde hair, and instead gained a reputation as a player who froze in the Slam spotlight. During the summer lockdowns, Thiem and Zverev became more famous for ignoring COVID-quarantine rules than anything they had done with a racquet. On Sunday, with the Big 3 away, the Austrian and the German had the best chance they would ever have to put childish things away and leave their “can’t win the big one” reputations behind.

So how did they do? Did they pass the audition? We can start by saying that Thiem and Zverev made the most of their time on the stage—if anything, that’s an understatement. Over four hours and one minute, these two friendly rivals put on a long, raw, sometimes-awful, sometimes-brilliant, always-imperfect, but ultimately compelling show. There were dull moments and head-scratching moments, but they were largely forgotten as the match wound to its painfully dramatic final act. The winner didn’t start playing well until 4-4 in the fifth set. The loser squandered innumerable golden opportunities. But the end stayed with me for hours afterward, in a way that thousands of higher-quality matches haven’t.

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Admittedly, the drama was a long time coming. In the run-up to the match on Saturday and Sunday, it was obvious how much this final missed the presence of one of the Big 3. Fans may roll their eyes at GOAT conversations and Slam-chase analyses, but they create buzz, tension, stakes—people care about Rafa, Roger, and Novak. There was precious little buzz in the 48 hours before Thiem and Zverev walked on court. That will change, of course, if these two continue to win majors and create a rivalry. But for now, this match was a good reminder of just how much the Big 3 have monopolized the interest of the general public, and how far the Next Gen has to go to create anything approaching that interest. Thiem and Zverev are 27 and 23, but it felt like they were making a debut in New York.

And that’s how the match itself felt: Like two guys, for all of their skill on a tennis court, who were trying to do something they had never done before.

The favorite, Thiem, was a nervous wreck to start. He said his previous experience in these matches only made it worse.

“I was so tight in the beginning,” Thiem said. “Maybe it was not even good that I played in previous major finals. I mean, I wanted this title so much, and of course it was also in my head that if I lose this, it’s 0-4. It’s always in your head.”

Zverev, by contrast, was loose to start. So loose that he transformed himself into the player we had always wanted him to be. He hit his forehand with purpose instead of rolling it in. He came to the net and used his albatross-like wingspan to knock off winning volleys. He took the ball on the rise. He went up 6-2, 5-1.

And then something happened to him. You could see it in his face and his walk. The thought of winning a Grand Slam had, in a matter of minutes, gone from being a distant dream to a reality. But with that change, it also seemed to become a barrier in his mind, one that kept him from simply playing tennis. He stopped nailing his down the line forehand. He stopped closing out points with volleys. He started going for 130-m.p.h. second serves and double faulting, at strangely crucial times.

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Zverev went back to playing defensively, and for a time it worked, because Thiem still couldn’t shake his nerves. But all of that changed when the German went up a break early in the third. At that point, Thiem no longer had anything to lose, while Zverev had everything to lose.

“The match turned when he broke me I think for the first time in the third set,” Zverev said. “I think he started playing better and I started playing much worse. That’s when the match turned. But I still had plenty of chances after that.”

The third and fourth sets played out in the same painful way. Thiem was erratic, but aggressive, while Zverev was in a fog, still unsure of how to get past that final barrier and close out a Slam final. He would double fault 15 times and make 65 unforced errors. But as he said, he had plenty of chances.

“I was super close to being a Grand Slam champion,” Zverev said. “I was a few games away, maybe a few points away. For me, what upset me 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.”

The fifth set was the one to remember. No longer burdened with a lead, Zverev emerged from his fog and went back to playing proactively. At the same time, Thiem, after launching himself into his shots for three hours, had finally found a semblance of a groove. In the fifth, Thiem was like a man clinging to a cliff with his fingertips; somehow, despite struggling physically, he never fell off.

Serving at 2-3, Thiem went down 0-30, then played four excellent points to hold. He went down 3-5, but survived when Zverev made four quick errors. Serving at 4-5, 30-30, Thiem took a massive cut at a forehand and put the ball on the outside of the sideline; another inch wider and he would have been down match point. Down 0-2 in the decisive tiebreaker, he feathered in a perfect drop volley. At 6-6, in the breaker, he drilled a forehand pass to set up his third match point, the one that he would finally win. Thiem never had his A game, but he kept firing anyway, and that’s what won him the match.

“It’s a Slam finals, I said myself, I mean, I’m playing bad, I’m way too tight, legs are heavy, arms are heavy,” Thiem said. “But I always hope and the expectations that at one point I free up….The belief was always there.”

“Somehow the belief was stronger than the body, and I’m super happy about that.”

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Thiem was the winner, but when it was over, the focus shifted to Zverev. He sat and stared blankly ahead on his sideline chair. He teared up as he told his parents he missed them, and that he would make them proud someday. While Thiem broke through as a Slam champion, Zverev broke through as a player to root for. Has there ever been, in any Slam final, anything as agonizing as his second serve at 5-6 in the tiebreaker? As it crept toward the net, I'm guessing millions of people helped will it over. It made it by a millimeter.

When we think of this match in the future, it’s likely that we’ll remember the speeches before anything else. Zverev spoke through tears, and Thiem spent the bulk of his time talking about their friendship. These two, who share a language, are closer away from the court than the Big 3—one Swiss, one Spaniard, one Serb—have ever been. That friendly dynamic may always make their matches difficult and uneven, but it’s also something that fans may come to appreciate about them. The sport will need new champions, but it will also need human figures that people care about. Zverev, especially, made himself one on Sunday. Anyone who has ever played tennis can understand what happened to him.

Thiem and Zverev won’t be taking over the Big 3’s stage permanently. In two weeks, Rafael Nadal will be the favorite at Roland Garros. Next January, Novak Djokovic will be the favorite at the Australian Open. Neither is going to retire anytime soon. But in New York, Thiem and Zverev gave us a preview of what might be. Next time they may produce better tennis, but they may never produce a match as unforgettable as this one. It’s safe to say they passed the audition.