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Column: Dominic Thiem rallies to defeat Sascha Zverev for U.S. Open title

Dominic Thiem holds up the championship trophy after defeating Alexander Zverev at the U.S. Open.
Dominic Thiem holds up the championship trophy after defeating Sascha Zverev for the men’s singles title at the U.S. Open on Sunday.
(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

Dominic Thiem’s nerves undermined him at the start of his U.S. Open final against Sascha Zverev on Sunday and his body almost betrayed him at the end. Somewhere in between, after an admittedly too-tight start left Thiem down two sets and a break and before muscle cramps threatened to sabotage his gritty comeback late in the fifth set, Thiem became a Grand Slam event champion in his mind, if not yet on the scoreboard.

“Somehow, the belief today was stronger than the body,” he said, “and I’m super happy about that.”

A U.S. Open tournament like no other ended as none had before it, with a fifth-set tiebreaker deciding the men’s champion at Arthur Ashe Stadium and no fans present to live each shot with them. Thiem, three times a loser in Grand Slam finals, clawed back for a 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (6) victory over first-time Slam finalist Zverev and became the first man to win the U.S. Open singles title after losing the first two sets since Pancho Gonzales came back to top Ted Schroeder in 1949.

Thiem’s triumph was the fifth in any Grand Slam event final in the Open era (since 1968) by a player who lost the first two sets, and first since Gaston Gaudio rallied past Guillermo Cordia at the 2004 French Open. At 27, Thiem became the first male U.S. Open winner born in the 1990s and only the second Austrian to win a major title, following Thomas Muster’s triumph at the 1995 French Open.

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Naomi Osaka earned her second U.S. Open crown and third Grand Slam title by beating Victoria Azarenka 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 and made a statement for the times.

“I dedicated basically my whole life until this point to win one of the four majors,” Thiem said. “Now I did it. That’s also for myself a great accomplishment.”

With the “Big Three” of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic out of the picture — Nadal didn’t compete because of concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Federer is recovering from knee surgery, and Djokovic was defaulted out of his round of 16 match for striking a ball that hit a lineswoman in the throat — the path was cleared for a new champion to arise within the U.S. Open bubble. Thiem lost only one set before Sunday’s final as he became the first first-time Slam winner since Marin Cilic won the U.S. Open in 2014. Cilic was the only other opponent to win a set from Thiem during the tournament, in the third round.

“Definitely, I achieved a life goal, a dream of myself, which I had for many, many years,” Thiem said during a postmatch videoconference.

Dominic Thiem, of Austria, returns a shot to Alexander Zverev, of Germany.
Dominic Thiem returns a shot to Alexander Zverev during their men’s final match at the U.S. Open on Sunday.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

His experience as the runner-up twice at the French Open and at this year’s Australian Open was of little use to him on Sunday against German-born Zverev, 23. “Maybe it was not even good that I played in previous major finals. I mean, I wanted this title so much,” Thiem said, “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?”

Instead of waiting for the next opportunity he jolted himself awake early in the third set Sunday. Zverev broke his serve for a 2-1 lead but Thiem broke back, battling and pouncing as Zverev began to make mistakes. Thiem broke Zverev’s serve to take the set and battled through the fourth set, breaking for 5-3 and winning the set when Zverev hit a forehand into the net. Zverev said the match turned in the third set, but not irreversibly. “I think he started playing much better and I started playing much worse,” Zverev said. “But I still had plenty of chances after that.”

Dominic Thiem reacts after defeating Alexander Zverev at the U.S. Open on Sunday.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

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Both were tired in the fifth set, when Zverev cramped so badly that he couldn’t push off on his first serve. He struggled with his second serve, giving Thiem another opening. Thiem had two championship points in the tiebreaker before he hit a forehand passing shot to take a 7-6 lead and won on a mis-hit by Zverev.

Ignoring social distancing rules, the two friends embraced on the court. Zverev was emotional as he thanked his parents, Alexander and Irina, who had tested positive for COVID-19 but have since recovered. “I think that we were both tested negative maybe 14 times, something like that, this week,” Thiem said. “We just wanted to share this moment.”

And so they did, creating a warm memory to end this strangest and quietest of U.S. Opens.

After dominating the first set, Serena Williams falls to Victoria Azarenka in the U.S. Open semifinals. Azarenka will play Naomi Osaka for the title.

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