It may have taken a knee injury, a global pandemic and a freak accident to deny the Big 3 their 14th consecutive major title over the past fortnight at Flushing Meadows. Nevertheless, on Sunday in Queens, a new men’s singles Grand Slam champion will be crowned for the first time since 2014.
Dominic Thiem, who lost in last year’s opening round, will play his fourth career major final against first-time Slam finalist Alexander Zverev. Thiem has won his last 10 sets at the US Open (five by at least a 6-2 scoreline) and has looked fantastic. His final-round opponent has not.
Much has been made of Zverev’s less-than-stellar performances in his quarterfinal and semifinal victories against Borna Coric and Pablo Carreno Busta. The criticism is fair. He opened both matches looking more like a deer in headlights than the world No. 7. But each time he figured out a way to win, and there’s something to be said for that. At the end of the day, winning is all that matters.
According to both the oddsmakers and the eye test, all signs point to a landslide victory for the Austrian. Thiem is listed as a gargantuan (-400) favorite, and nothing we’ve seen in the past week from both players should make us think otherwise.
That might play into Zverev's favor. Judging by his past two matches, the former ATP Finals champion isn't exactly embracing the role of heavy favorite. A few days ago, Martina Navratilova criticized Zverev’s “pat-a-cake” ball striking.
“You’ll win a lot of matches against lesser players playing not to lose, but you will not win majors that way,” the 18-time Grand Slam champion said. “You won’t beat the top players that way because they will be fired up and they’re too good for that.”
At first Zverev didn’t understand what “pat-a-cake” meant. He wasn’t happy when he found out.
“Maybe she should look at my record against the big guys,” Zverev said. “Maybe she should look that I’m positive against Roger and maybe she should look that I’ve beaten Novak on multiple occasions in big matches and finals.”
While Zverev has a point—he also defeated Rafael Nadal, 6-2, 6-4, at last year’s ATP Finals—Navratilova is correct. In order to beat Thiem, he'll need to play confident and aggressive first-strike tennis.
Let’s look back at the 2020 Australian Open semifinals, where Thiem defeated Zverev, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), to figure out exactly what Zverev must bring to the table, and what he should leave behind, if he wants to shock the world and win his maiden major title.
First things first: Zverev cannot hit forehands off his back foot, not against a player who hits as big as Thiem. Zverev chose not to attack this forehand and immediately paid the price.
Zverev's serve gave him control of this point, but he immediately relinquished it with a weak forehand. It only took Thiem four shots to set up an easy forehand winner. Zverev must hit with more purpose on Sunday.
This is more like it.
Zverev's backhand is his moneymaker. To neutralize an opponent's strength, oftentimes you must attack it, which is exactly what Thiem does here.
Thiem's slice has been effective all week. He's knifing it better than ever before. It led him to victory against 2019 finalist Daniil Medvedev. and he will surely use it against the 6'6" Zverev to force him to bend down and hit up on the ball. If Zverev doesn't produce a pure strike, Thiem will do this.
But at the end of the day, Thiem can consistently hit shots like this missile of a forehand, while Zverev cannot.
As we have seen so many times in 2020, anything can happen. But Zverev defeating Thiem on Sunday would qualify as one of the more unpredictable events of the year. Thiem has paid his dues in learning firsthand from Nadal and Djokovic in how to approach a Grand Slam final. He deserves this title, and will secure it.
The Pick: Dominic Thiem