After Dominic Thiem had somehow managed to escape from not only a two sets to love deficit but also recover from 3-5 down in the fifth to defeat Alexander Zverev in the US Open final, after he had overcome cramps, nagging doubts and and an inspired adversary, Thiem was dealing with layers of emotion. Thiem had overcome a dismal first couple of sets when Zverev made him look frequently like a man of mediocrity. It was easily the most suspenseful title-round contest in the history of the US Open, although the level of play was uneven on both sides of the net and both players advertised their vulnerability at different stages of a ferociously fought battle.
And yet, the Austrian could be enormously proud of making a monumental breakthrough by claiming his first major in his fourth Grand Slam final across the past three years. To be sure, he has played a much better brand of tennis on many occasions, and he needed some good fortune to survive in this skirmish. But Thiem made history on a multitude of levels, establishing himself as the first man to secure the US Championships from two sets to love down since Pancho Gonzalez ousted Ted Schroeder in the amateur era back in 1949. He became the first man to rally from two sets down in any major final since Gaston Gaudio overcame Guillermo Coria at Roland Garros 16 years ago. And he was the victor in the first men’s US Open final ever to be settled in a fifth set tie-break.
When it was over, poor Zverev—who did everything but win this tennis match—displayed remarkable sportsmanship as he understandably began crying during his speech at the presentation ceremony. He said, “I don’t know where to start but first of all I want to congratulate Dominic on winning the first of many Grand Slam titles.”
Zverev shifted his attention to his team and proclaimed, “One day we are going to lift that trophy up together.” How he was able to collect his thoughts so coherently and graciously at such an impossibly arduous moment we will never know, but he then saluted the US Open for staging the tournament so heavily against the odds and pulling it off handsomely.
“Who would have thought this would have been possible,” he said. “I want to thank the US Open. The USTA could not have done a better job.”
Having gone that far, a gallant Zverev could no longer prevent himself from choking up and releasing a few tears, which he did as he addressed his parents who were not on site but were with him in spirit.
“I want to thank my parents,” he said. “They are with me at every single tournament. I miss them.”
Thiem could not have been more gracious himself. He said, “I would also like to start with you Sascha. We started to know each other in 2014 and then in 2016, we started our great rivalry. We have made great things happen on and off the court and our journey has brought us here. I wish there could have been two winners today. We both deserved it. You are going to make it, 100%. Definitely you are going to bring it home one day.”
It seemed entirely possible in the early stages of the encounter that Zverev would move past Thiem swiftly and convincingly. He was setting the tempo, striking the ball beautifully off both sides, and serving stupendously. Simultaneously, Thiem could not find his range off the ground, missing shots he would normally execute with ease, pressing as he tried to get on top of the rallies, unable to figure out how to find a way to impose himself.
Thiem’s inefficiency on serve was a major stumbling block. He made only 37% of his first serves in the opening set while Zverev was at 68%, winning 92% of those points. Moreover, Zverev’s controlled aggression off the ground was astounding. He both dictated rallies and defended unanswerably. Zverev swept through that set majestically, breaking Thiem in the third game when the Austrian missed five of six first serves, adding an insurance break in the seventh game when Thiem served two double faults. Zverev swept 16 of 19 points on serve and stifled Thiem time and again from the baseline.
The pattern was unaltered through most of the second set. After Thiem held in a difficult opening game, Zverev collected five games in a row. He was on the verge of taking a two-set lead in barely more than an hour.
But at that juncture, Zverev’s unconsciously brilliant play evaporated to a large degree. With Thiem serving almost despondently at 1-5, Zverev had three set points but did not exploit his openings as Thiem tenuously held on. Nevertheless, Zverev garnered a fourth set point at 5-2 on his own serve, but wasted a glaring serve-and-volley opportunity, punching a forehand first volley wide with the court wide open for the winner.
Thiem cut Zverev’s lead to 5-4 but the 6’6” German held on in the tenth game to gain his two-set lead. When Zverev broke serve to reach 2-1 in the third, he seemed poised to move on inexorably to victory in his first major final. No German male player had been in the final of the US Open since Michael Stich in 1994. Boris Becker was the last German man to capture the title in 1989. Zverev appeared to be on the verge of a landmark moment.
Yet he lost a three-deuce game on his serve as Thiem knotted the score at 2-2 in the third. By now it was apparent that Zverev was losing steam and fading a bit physically. In turn, Thiem started connecting regularly with his first serve and taking control of more rallies. With Zverev serving at 4-5, Thiem made his move and applied pressure with solid returning. Bolstered by a double fault from Zverev at 15-0, Thiem took the next three points as the German netted a passing shot before making a pair of unforced errors.
In five service games over the course of the fourth set, the slowly improving, yet still vulnerable Thiem won 20 of 22 points. Zverev lost his serve only once at 3-4, losing a two-deuce game with his eleventh double fault and a flagrant unforced mistake off the forehand wing. That gave Thiem a 5-3 lead and he served out the set at love in the ninth game.
When Thiem broke Zverev at 15 to take the first game of the fifth and final set, he found himself ahead at last after a long and stressful afternoon of fighting from behind. Zverev donated a double fault in that game along with a pair of forehand unprovoked errors. Thiem served an ace to build a 30-15 lead in the second game but he played the next two point too cautiously and eventually lost it by pulling a forehand wide.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, Zverev found a new life, lacing a backhand passing shot winner up the line to reach break point A wild double fault from Thiem brought Zverev back to 1-1. Irrefutably, Zverev was revitalized. Serving in the third game at 15-30, he aced Thiem and took the next two points. Although Thiem held on easily for 2-2, Zverev now had the advantage of serving with the lead.
At 2-2, Zverev reached 40-15 with a backhand down the line that hit both lines in the corner. At 40-30 he clipped both lines in the corner with an ace released at 131 m.p.h. To 3-2 went a surging Zverev. Thiem was in trouble at 0-30 in the following game but he unleashed an astonishing forehand down the line winner and eventually held at 30 with an ace out wide in the ad court. 3-3.
Zverev was recapturing some of the form that put him ahead earlier. His approach shot at 40-30 was letter perfect, setting up a crisp backhand volley winner crosscourt. He had held for 4-3 and then went full force after a service break.
Thiem came from 0-30 to 30-30 in the eighth game but netted a forehand down the line approach and then missed a backhand passing shot. Zverev was right where he wanted to be at 5-3 in the fifth, attacking with far more conviction than Thiem, back in command. He approached the net no fewer than 66 times, winning 43 of those points. Although Thiem won a larger percentage of points when he went to the net (23 of 31), he did not get there often enough, partially because Zverev prevented him from doing so with superior defense and excellent length on his shots.
But Zverev opened the ninth game with a badly mishit forehand long and then tamely netted another forehand. At 30-40, he served-and-volleyed but Thiem kept his return low. Zverev netted the first volley. Thiem had somehow kept himself in the match but soon he was behind 15-30 at 4-5, two points from extinction. Zverev erred on a difficult forehand stretch return. Thiem clipped the line with an audacious forehand down the line winner for 40-30 and then connected with a spectacular forehand passing shot down the line on the stretch. 5-5.
Now Thiem reignited his game again, breaking for 6-5 as Zverev missed once off each side from 30-30. Improbably, Thiem had taken three critical games in a row and now it was his turn to serve for the match. But the 27-year-old was cramping and had the trainer treat his leg at the changeover.
Thiem was visibly uptight and uncertain. He started the 6-5 game with a bad mistake off the forehand. Zverev came forward to put away an overhead for 0-30. At 30-40, Thiem was on the defensive and a gusty Zverev cracked a forehand inside in for a winner to make it 6-6.
Fittingly, it would all be resolved in a final set tie-break. Neither player had succeeded in serving out the match. Not only was Thiem ailing but it was also apparent that Zverev was uncomfortable. Zverev fashioned a 2-0 lead but Thiem’s forehand drop volley winner and a double fault from Zverev made it 2-2. At 3-4, Zverev served another almost fatal double fault before Thiem missed off the forehand.
The Austrian now served at 5-4. A magnificent forehand passing shot winner gave him double match point at 6-4. But he pressed on a short forehand and sent it into the net. Thiem misplayed another forehand and two match points had evaporated. It was 6-6.
Both men were two points from victory. Zverev got himself up to the net, but Thiem kept him at bay. On his third passing shot attempt, he passed Zverev down the line off the forehand spectacularly for a 7-6 lead. At match point for the third time, he crossed the finish line as Zverev sent a crosscourt backhand wide. Victory went to Thiem, 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (6), in just over four hours of tumultuous tennis.
It was a devastatingly potent setback for Zverev. He could well have won in straight sets and seemed poised to close the account at 5-3 in the fifth. But Thiem prevailed in the end with perhaps the grittiest victory of his career.
This was the fourth consecutive five-set final for the men at the majors. This run started with the epic duel between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer at Wimbledon last year. Then Rafael Nadal ousted an enterprising Daniil Medvedev at the 2019 US Open and Djokovic opened the 2020 season by rallying from two sets to one down to beat Thiem.
At long last, Thiem has the money off his back with a Grand Slam trophy in hand. He is the first man born in the 1990s to garner a Grand Slam title and the first new man to claim a major title since Marin Cilic took US Open six years ago. The feeling grows that Sascha Zverev could not be more correct in predicting that Dominic Thiem will add quite a few more majors to his collection in the years ahead.