September 13, 2020

Fourth Time's a Charm

It seems only appropriate that, to cap off an unprecedented and wildly unpredictable U.S. Open, we get an outcome as crazy as the one we just saw.

In a little over four hours, after losing the first two sets and getting down a break in the third, Austria's Dominic Thiem somehow fought back against first-time Major finalist Alexander Zverev to win his very first Grand Slam title. He was the first man to do so in more than 70 years in New York.

The win is especially sweet after Thiem's heartbreak in Australia at the start of the year. The 27-year-old and two-time French Open finalist had squandered a 2-1 set lead over heavy favorite Novak Djokovic in Melbourne and didn't seem to recover well after that.

He lost to world #128 Gianluca Mager in the Rio quarters on his favorite clay surface, and though he played -- and won -- a lot of exhibition matches, including ones on the ill-advised Adria Tour over the summer, he was absolutely crushed in his opening round of the Western & Southern just ahead of the Open.

But he turned things around when it counted.

Even before Djokovic's unfortunate exit in the fourth round, Thiem was looking solid on court. His only real challenge in the early rounds came from 2014
champ Marin Cilic, who managed to take a set off him, but he rolled over a very talented Felix Auger-Aliassime in the quarters and absolutely crushed last year's runner-up Daniil Medvedev in the semis.

On the other side of the draw Zverev, who started out the year with mixed results -- he lost all three of his matches at the inaugural ATP Cup but then made the semis at the Australian Open -- was the ostensible biggest beneficiary of Nole's default. Still he'd dropped sets in four of his first five matches and found himself down 0-2 sets to Pablo Carreño Busta in the semis. He seemed primed to reverse his fortunes in the final though, when he came out firing from the get-go, building what seemed to be an insurmountable lead.

But in stark contrast to what we've seen on the women's tour, where it seems debut appearances in Major finals seem to be an advantage, this time Thiem's "experience" won out. While both men had an opportunity to serve out the match, and both men failed, it was Dominic who was able to convert his third match point in the fifth set tiebreak.

With the win, he became the first first-time Grand Slam champion on the men's side since Cilic in 2014 and the first man born in the 90s to claim a big trophy. It's weird to think that, once Nole was out, Thiem was essentially the elder statesman left in the field, both the oldest and one of only two quarterfinalists who'd made a final at a Major before. So this was ostensibly his title for the taking. The fact that he had to fight so hard for it, might just indicate we really are on the verge of a new era in men's tennis.

Sure, you could argue that, without having to face any of the Big Three at the Open there is something of an asterisk after Thiem's title. But we saw over this fortnight glimpses of what's to come in the men's game. Whatever your thoughts on the quality of this final, we did certainly see a lot of great shots, fight, and heart in the field.

And with the French Open now around the corner, and the likelihood that both Rafael Nadal and Djokovic will be there to vie for the title, we'll soon see whether all of their runs -- especially Thiem's -- were just flukes or a true sign of what's to come.

And here's hoping they all make it a good one.

No comments: