Domi’s night in the lights: Thiem claims maiden grand slam crown in unforgettable US Open final

Dominic Thiem claimed the first grand slam title of his career, fighting back from two sets down to defeat Sascha Zverev 2-6 4-6 6-4 6-3 7-6 in a final set tiebreak under the New York night sky. Alex Grant reports.

As Sascha Zverev misplaced his final effort into the tramlines, Dominic Thiem collapsed to the clay, mentally and physically exhausted, his dream finally achieved.

2020 has served up more than a few firsts but in the first major final to be contested between two of tennis’ upcoming cast, Thiem & Zverev served up a few more.

With a new grand slam champion guaranteed in New York after Novak Djokovic had earlier crashed out of the tournament in disgrace, Dominic Thiem, the second seed, in the absence of world number two Rafael Nadal, entered his fourth slam final as favourite. But it was Zverev, playing in his first major final, who started the brighter.

Playing some truly wonderful tennis, the German – aided by an opponent clearly riddled with nerves – raced through the opening set, taking it 6-2 in just 30 minutes.

The second set followed much the same course, with the 23-year-old breaking early before securing the double break and racing to a 5-1 lead as Thiem continued to struggle.

Forehands that had been regularly finding their marks throughout the fortnight were missing the lines with increased frequency, with Thiem’s usually reliable first serve lounging in the mid 30s for percentage in, whilst even his iconic thunderbolt of a one-handed backhand had become wild.

The Austrian soon began showing some signs of life, however, grabbing one of the breaks back but Zverev made no mistake when serving the set out a second time.

When the German broke to take an early lead in the third, it seemed to be all going his way. But if Thiem had been riddled with nerves in the first two sets, it was now Zverev’s time to show nerves as the realisation of what he was about to achieve kicked in.

Groundstrokes that had been painting the lines throughout the match to this point were now missing their intended target. Zverev’s first serve, so deadly throughout the opening hour of the contest, was now losing its potency and the double faults, that have long been the German’s Achilles heel, were creeping back into his game with increasing frequency.

Freed by what seemed like a weight being taken off his shoulders and buoyed by the drop in his opponent’s level, Thiem’s power and precision returned with the 27-year-old suddenly finding a few extra miles an hour off both wings.

The Austrian soon broke back to immediately level the third set at two games apiece. The next five games went the way of the server before at 5-4 Thiem stepped in, forcing yet more errors out of the German and as one more forehand flew into the tramlines, the set was sealed and with it, a route back into the contest.

The fourth, much like the back end of the third, largely went with serve, with the first seven games going the way of the server but at 4-3, Thiem once again made his move and was soon handed the all important break as another Zverev double fault, followed by another unforced error off his forehand side, gave the Austrian a chance to serve to level this match up.

Thiem needed no second invitation, successfully serving out to love with yet another unforced error off Zverev’s forehand side ensuring that a fourth straight men’s grand slam final would be headed the distance.

Nerves played a massive part throughout the contest, with both men losing their focus at various points, allowing their opponent a route back into the match. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

All the momentum was now with the Austrian and as Zverev’s forehand continued to breakdown, Thiem laid down his marker to break the German’s serve in the opening game of the final set.

But just as the contest looked to be going very much Thiem’s way, it took yet another twist. A quite brilliant backhand pass down the line from Zverev, followed up by a horrible double fault – this time off Thiem’s racket – saw the German break straight back.

Both men continued to have their chances but both held firm until, with Zverev leading 4-3, the German stepped it up and at break point up forced a wild backhand error off Thiem’s racket to leave the Hamburg native serving for the first grand slam title of his career.

But, not for the first time in the match, the nerves of the moment proved too much for the German as he capitulated on serve, gifting Thiem yet another route back into the contest.

Not to be deterred, however, the German pushed for what would have been a title winning break in Thiem’s next service game but just when he needed it most, the Austrian pulled out not one but two quite stunning forehands to keep the German at bay and level this final at five all.

Reeling from the loss of his chance at the title, Zverev continued to struggle, with more errors flying off his increasingly volatile forehand and backhand wings, handing Thiem a second straight break of serve and with it, his own chance to serve for the US Open crown.

This topsy-turvy match was not finished there though as just like Zverev before him, Thiem himself got tight, failing to serve the match out with the German getting the break back, ensuring that for the first time, a US Open final would be decided by a final set tiebreak.

It was a tiebreak that very much went with the same course as the match. Zverev took a mini-break lead before getting a little tight, serving two more double faults (his 10th and 11th of contest) helping a clearly cramping Thiem to a 6-4 lead and with it two championship points. The Austrian’s big moment, the biggest of his career, had come.

And it had gone again, as he missed two straightforward forehands.

There may not have been a crowd present to witness it during this current climate but the tension was clear for all to see. Whether it be the few coaches and tournament officials allowed inside the Arthur Ashe Stadium (usually holding just under 24,000 fans) or for the millions watching on from home all over the world.

With the tiebreak perfectly poised at 6-6, the players once again changed ends with Thiem limping back to his chair for a drink knowing he had to put those missed forehands behind him.

And put them behind him he did, with his forehand this time coming up clutch, ripping past Zverev, who was stranded at the net, leaving the world number three with yet another championship point.

Another nervy rally ensued but as Zverev dragged a tired looking backhand into the tramlines, Thiem crumbled to the floor with his arms outstretched. History and his own personal dream achieved.

Going against procedure, Thiem and Zverev embraced on the court, showing respect to each other as long term friends and rivals. (Photo by Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports)

The now customary tap of the racket (which has replaced the handshake in these recent COVID-19 times) was forgotten about as these two great rivals and friends embraced on the court.

If the match were tough to watch for Zverev fans out there, then the post match interview would have been even tougher as the world number seven broke down on court after revealing that neither of his parents were able to be present in New York having both tested positive for COVID-19 in the build up to the event:

“There’s some special people missing from the crowd today. I want to thank my parents. They’re always with me. Unfortunately my mum and dad tested positive for COVID before the tournament and they couldn’t be with me. I miss them,” commented the German.

For Dominic Thiem, he was quick to pay tribute to his good friend, relaying words of encouragement that Zverev himself had once given him saying:

“Really, I wish we could have two winners. We both deserve it. I remember you told me, ‘You’re going to make it’. I’ll tell you the same thing. You’re going to make it and you’ll definitely bring it home one day.”

It is a match that is guaranteed to live long in the memory for players and fans alike but for both Thiem and Zverev, they will now look to put the physical and emotional toll of this match behind them with only a week to prepare before the third and final grand slam of the year kicks off on the clay of Roland Garros.

For Thiem, a French Open runner-up the last two years, he will be hoping the magnitude of this victory will help him finally go that one step further in Paris. But whether the man often dubbed the ‘Prince of Clay’ can finally dethrone the King, we will have to wait and see.

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