Dominic Thiem overcomes two-set deficit to win US Open
Alexander Zverev led by two sets and a break but Thiem battled his way back to win on a fifth-set tie-break.
Dominic Thiem defeated Alexander Zverev and his own anxieties in a dramatic US Open final to win his first grand slam title.
The 27-year-old becomes the first man for more than 70 years to recover from two sets to love down to win the final in New York, putting on a display of mental and physical resilience to prevail 2-6 4-6 6-4 6-3 7-6 (6).
Both men served for the match in a nerve-shredding fifth set but in the end it needed the first ever deciding tie-break in a US Open men’s final to divide them.
Ever since Novak Djokovic’s disqualification ensured the first new men’s slam champion for six years, the question had been which of the young contenders would seize his chance.
The nerves for both men were palpable with so much at stake but it was Thiem who finally stumbled across the finish line on his third match point despite barely being able to walk.
It was the Austrian’s fourth grand slam final after two losses to Rafael Nadal at the French Open and one to Novak Djokovic in Australia, and he admitted: “I was so tight in the beginning.
“Maybe it was not even good that I played in previous major finals. I wanted this title so much, and of course there was also in my head that if I lose this one, it’s 0-4.
“It’s always in your head: Is this chance ever coming back again? This, that, all these thoughts, which are not great to play your best tennis, to play free.”
Thiem received treatment for an Achilles problem during his semi-final victory over Daniil Medvedev but it was a cramp that almost derailed him in the final set.
At the moment of victory he collapsed to the court in elation and exhaustion before sharing a hug with a disconsolate but sporting Zverev.
It was against protocol but it was hard to criticise the two friends who had just endured the most emotionally-draining four hours of their lives.
Thiem said: “Definitely I achieved a life goal, a dream of myself, which I had for many, many years. Of course, as a kid, as well, when I started to play tennis. But back then it’s so far away.
“Then I got closer and closer to the top. At one point I realised that, ‘Wow, maybe one day I can really win one of the four biggest titles in tennis’.
“I put a lot of work in. I dedicated basically my whole life until this point to win one of the four majors. Now I did it.”
Zverev was playing in his first slam final and had unshackled the nerves that crippled him for two sets against Pablo Carreno Busta in the semi-finals.
At two sets and a break up, he was within touching distance of the trophy, but somehow the feeling remained that it was far from finished.
Partly that was due to Zverev’s ongoing second serve issues, and the double faults racked up as Thiem gradually dragged him into a dogfight.
When the Austrian moved a break ahead early in the decider, it seemed the script was written, but it had to be torn up several more times before the final shot was hit.
“It was tough to stay there and to still believe,” said Thiem. “But I did. It’s a slam finals. I said to myself, ‘I’m playing bad, I’m way too tight, legs are heavy, arms are heavy’.
“But I always had hope and the expectation that at one point I free up. Luckily it was not too late when I broke him back in the third set. From that moment, the belief got stronger and stronger.”
Zverev will surely be reliving the agonies of this occasion for some time. He broke down during the presentation ceremony when he talked about his parents, who were unable to attend the tournament after testing positive for Covid-19.
The German said later: “Obviously being two sets to love and a break up in a grand slam final then losing is not easy.
“I was super close to being a grand slam champion. I was a few games away, maybe a few points away. What upset me the most is not the third set, it’s the fifth set. I had a lot of chances in the fifth set and didn’t use them.
“I’m 23 years old. I don’t think it’s my last chance. I do believe that I will be a grand slam champion at some point.”
In this unique season, the pair must now try to leave this occasion behind and focus on clay, with the French Open starting in two weeks.
Most people expected Roland Garros to be the venue for Thiem’s slam breakthrough, and he said: “I think physically I’m going to be fine. I’m going to have enough time to recover from all the troubles I had.
“But the question is how I’m going to do it with the emotions mentally. Obviously, I’ve never been in this situation. I achieved a big, big goal. At the same time, I expect that it’s going to be easier for me now in the biggest tournaments.”