The 5th set is not about tennis, it’s about nerves.”
Boris Becker, three-time Wimbledon champion
No. 2 seed Dominic Thiem fulfilled a life-long dream by capturing a major title Sunday with a record-setting come-from-behind victory against Alexander (Sascha) Zverev, 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 in the U.S. Open final.
“I achieved a goal which I had for many, many years,” said the 27-year-old Austrian, who was six when his parents (Wolfgang and Karin Thiem, both tennis coaches) taught him to play. In recent years, he’d reach the final of three majors, losing to top-ranked Novak Djokovic at the 2020 Australian Open and the 2019 French Open and to Rafael Nadal in the 2018 French Open. “At one point, I realized that, wow, maybe one day I can really win one of the four biggest titles (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open). 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.”
Thiem became the first man in 71 years to win this title after losing the first two sets. He had beaten Zverev in seven of their last nine matches but seemed off his game and on track to lose a fourth major final due to the jitters. Zverev managed his anxiety in the first two sets but allowed a more confident Thiem to climb back to take the third and fourth sets. It was the first meeting of the two friends had met in the final of a major event. Both moved into the fifth set with heavy arms and cramping legs.
“It was the first time [in] years and years that I was cramping, but I guess it was not physical cramps, it was mentally,” Thiem said. “I was super, super tight the whole day actually and then in the beginning of the match. Somehow the belief today was stronger than the body and I’m super happy about that.”
Zverev led 3-5 in the fifth set, but he never held a match-point. Back-to-back unforced errors by Zverev helped Thiem tie the fifth set at 5-all. Thiem led 6-5 in the fifth but Zverev held to force the tiebreak. Two double faults by Zverev and a backhand that sailed wide match point brought a winner’s smile to Thiem’s face. He’s now free to dream of collecting more than one major title.
“With this goal achieved, I hope that I’m going to be in a little bit more relaxed and play a little bit more freely at the biggest events,” Thiem said. “It was tough to stay (in) there and to still believe, but I did. The thing is, the belief in myself is not enough because Sascha, I’m sure, believed in himself as well. Two guys like that play a match against each other. Obviously, … it finishes in a fifth set tiebreak.”
Instead of observing social distancing protocol of tapping rackets as a Covid-29 precaution, the two friends slapped hands in a fraternity style rhythm, then hugged each other warmly. “We were both tested negative maybe 14 times,” Thiem said. “We didn’t put anyone in danger. We just wanted to share the moment.”
In his finalist speech at the trophy presentations, Zverev lost his composure a couple of times, wept openly and regretted that his parents, Alexander, Sr. and Irina, did not accompany him on this trip. “(They’re) with me for every tournament, I miss them. This is tough,” he said through tears. Later, he explained that his parents had tested positive for the coronavirus before the tournament but are feeling better and recently had tested negative.
“I was super close to being a Grand Slam champion,” Zverev said. “I was a few games away, maybe a few points away. What upset most is not the third set or something like that. It’s the fifth set. I had a lot of chances in the fifth set and didn’t use them. (But) I’m 23 years old. I don’t think it (was) my last chance. I do believe that I will be a Grand Slam champion at some point.”
Said Thiem: “I wish we could have two winners today. We both deserved it.”