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By Richard Pagliaro | Sunday, September 13, 2020


Dominic Thiem made history fighting back from two sets down to edge Alexander Zverev in a gripping fifth-set tiebreaker and capture his first major title at the US Open.

Photo credit: @USOpen

Teetering on the ledge of loss and tormented by oncoming cramps, Dominic Thiem gritted his teeth and made a defiant stand.

A tough-minded Thiem rallied past Alexander Zverev 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(6) in a gripping, grueling US Open final to capture his first career Grand Slam championship.

Osaka: Fight or Flight

After stumbling at the finish line of three prior Grand Slam finals, Thiem was a marathon man staging a stunning rally to win the first US Open championship decided in a fifth-set tiebreaker.

The son of tennis coaches dropped to his back in celebration floored by finally realizing the dream.

"Definitely I achieved a life goal, a dream of myself, which I had for many, many years," Thiem said. "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 realized 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 mean, I dedicated basically my whole life until this point to win one of the four majors. Now I did it."

The second-seeded Thiem made history as the first man in the Open Era to fight back from two sets down and win the US Open in a four hour, two-minute topsy-turvy triumph where tension and cramps played a major role in a series of sudden plot shifts.

This final was more high drama than high quality but it showcased shared warrior spirit as both men were sweat-soaked, staggered and spirited. They fought fatigue, rushes of adrenaline and spikes of pure panic as well.

Zverev served for the title at 5-3 in the final set and Thiem served for the championship at 6-5 in the decider, before they dragged each other into a place the US Open had never seen: A fifth-set championship tiebreaker. 

Careening toward the climactic tiebreaker you sometimes wondered if it would end like a double knockdown in boxing with both fighters counted out on the canvas before the final bell. 

Digging down deep and fueled by the pain of three Grand Slam final losses, a resolute Thiem refused to yield pulling off a historic comeback to edge Zverev for the eighth time in 10 career meetings.

The 27-year-old Thiem joins legendary Hall of Famer Pancho Gonzales, who fought back from a two-set deficit to defeat top-seeded Ted Schroeder 16-18, 2-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4,win the 1949 U.S. National Championships, as the only men in tournament history to rally from two sets down and take the title. Thiem collected a champion's check of $3 million and respect for transforming a high-strung start into a triumphant finish.

Both men poured their all into this titanic struggle and were staggered and pained by the final stages of the dramatic tie breaker. Given the stakes, the nerves were understandable.

"I think it's obvious that I was very tight in the beginning," Thiem said. "In the end, of course, we are both experienced enough and we both know that in a fifth-set tiebreak anyone can win. I think it's very understandable that we both didn't play our highest tennis anymore.

"When he served for the match, I was struggling physically, but I also thought that he is not the freshest anymore. I was just hoping to maybe get another chance, that he's not serving that huge anymore like he did in the beginning of the match.

"I played a great game there and brought myself back into the match."

Contesting his fourth career Grand Slam final and second in succession, a twitchy Thiem was six points away from suffering a straight-sets loss. Playing his maiden major final in his 20th career Grand Slam appearance, Zverev's level dipped slightly opening the door for Thiem to stage a spirited charge.

The 27-year-old Thiem is Austria's second Grand Slam singles champion joining Thomas Muster, who won Roland Garros in 1995.

It's an absolutely gut-wrenching defeat for Zverev, who blew through a tight Thiem breezing to a two-set lead lead. Zverev was six points from the title with a two-set, 4-all lead in the third set then served for the championship again at 5-3 in the final set only to tighten and see Thiem roar back with a three-game run.

Throughout this tournament the 6'6" German lived and died by his serve and ultimately it cost him the title today. A weary Zverev, who couldn't get the leg lift on serve in the final stages of this four-hour fight, hit 15 aces against 15 double faults, including two crucial double faults in the tie breaker.

"I was super close to being a Grand Slam champion," Zverev said. "I was a few games away, maybe a few points away. For me what upset me the 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. Yeah, I mean, 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."

The emotion of this inspired run to his first major final—and the raw pain of coming so close to seizing the dream only to see it flicker and fade at the finish—were clear as Zverev's voiced cracked and he grew tearful thanking his parents for their belief and support during an emotional trophy presentation.

Of course, Thiem knows all about the torment of near misses in major finals. 

At the Australian Open in February, Thiem led Novak Djokovic by two-sets-to-one before the Serbian battled back for a 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph in a gripping Australian Open final to capture his 17th career Grand Slam championship.

Since the start of 2019, Thiem has posted a combined 7-3 record vs. the Big 3. Neither Rafael Nadal nor Roger Federer played New York and Djokovic was bounced from the bubble last Sunday making history as the first top seed defaulted from the US Open. Thiem has paid his dues and was poised as Big 3 heir apparent to make his major breakthrough in this USTA bubble, but how would he cope with the pressure of being a solid favorite in the final?

As we contemplated that question, maiden major finalist Zverev stole the show exuding a relaxed intensity—and a willingness to drive his forehand down the line—at the outset.

Thiem possesses one of the biggest forehands in the game, while Zverev typically plays his flatter forehand crosscourt.

Flipping the script, Zverev crunched some clean forehands down the line to open his attack to the Austrian’s backhand side. While Zverev entered the final with a tournament-high 49 double faults, it as a tight Thiem who hit his third double fault then sprayed a running forehand donating the break and a 5-2 lead to the German.

Sliding a 122 mph ace down the T, Zverev closed a clean, convincing opening set in 30 minutes. Staring down the pressure of his first major final, Zverev executed a clear game plan: serve big and play aggressively. He served 68 percent, won 16 of 19 points played on his serve and prevailed in seven of eight trips to net.

Favored in a major final for the first time, the stress showed in the second-seeded Thiem who struggled to find his rhythm and range on serve and reset after that unsettled opening set.

It didn’t help the Austrian’s cause that Zverev was channeling his inner Boris Becker scraping out a fine half-volley in another net approach before blasting a 103 mph bullet forehand down the line that left Thiem a bit wide-eyed.

Trying to match Zverev’s pace, Thiem sailed a forehand as Zverev scored his third break to go up 2-1. Two-time Olympic gold-medal champion Nicolas Massu, Thiem’s coach, stood up applauding vigorously trying to spark some energy and urgency in his charge 41 minutes into the match.

Continuing to attack his serve, Zverev navigated a love-30 hole to back up the break in the fourth game.

A zoning Zverev zapped a forehand down line for a third set point on Thiem’s serve, but the two-time French Open finalist dug in to hold and extend the set.

Serving for a two-set lead at 5-2, Zverev serve-and-volleyed and had a wide-open court but pushed his forehand volley wide blowing a fourth set point. A double fault opened the door for Thiem who charged forward through it to take the net and his first break.

Serving for a two-set lead again, Zverev’s moment of truth came at 30-all. The lanky German righted himself slashing a big serve down the line and teeing off on a short forehand for a fifth set point.

This time, Zverev made no mistaking kicking in a first serve and swatting his signature shot, the two-hander down the line, to close the set. After 79 minutes, Zverev was playing large and fully in charge.

Thiem shanked a forehand drive volley then overhit a forehand donating the break and a 2-1 third-set lead. In a dire dilemma, Thiem dug in to break right back and keep flickering hope alive.

Slowly, Thiem turned up the flame of pressure and Zverev melted a bit shoveling a slice backhand into net to face a set point. Thiem stepped in driving a forehand forcing Zverev into an off-balance forehand error as Thiem broke to take the third set.

As Thiem’s level rose, Zverev dipped a bit and began showing some cracks of self doubt. Still, the world No. 7 saved a pair of break points grinding through a demanding hold to even the fourth set after six games.

The second serve issues Zverev felt earlier in the tournament resurfaced in the eighth game. Decelerating on a double fault, Zverev faced break point then flailed a forehand into the middle of the net gifting the break and a 5-3 lead to Thiem.

Thiem plowed through a love hold to force a final set prompting coach Massu to leap from his seat in a standing ovation.

Growing stronger with each passing set, Thiem changed his shirt then turned up the torment breaking a fading Zverev to start the final set with a bang.

Ratcheting up the tension and plot twist even more, Thiem tightened up skipping his seventh double fault to give the break right back.

“Come on! Let’s Go!” Zverev screamed trying to reignite his reserve of energy for the final push. A slick side-spinning drop volley—one of his best volleys of the match—helped Zverev hold for 2-1 with a loud shout and fist pump.

Applying scoreboard pressure with timely trips to net Zverev drew a netted pass for love-30 in the eighth game. Soaring back behind the service line, Thiem soared throwing down a smash then looped a lob inside the baseline to draw even.

Running through a forehand approach, Thiem netted it to face a break point. A tiring Thiem couldn’t repel Zverev’s charge as the German’s forward pressure paid off with the break for 5-3.

Serving for his first major title, a cramping Zverev wilted beneath the physical duress and pressure pushing a low forehand volley into the net giving Thiem a reprieve and the break back.

Zverev went up 15-30 in the next game—two points from the title—but Thiem torched a forehand winner down the line then curled a running forehand pass leveling the finale, 5-all.

Every time one man seemed to have momentum, the other snatched it back.

Testing Thiem’s forehand again, Zverev got burned for the third time in a row to start the 11th game then tapped his two-hander into net to face break point. In a crackling rally, Zverev fended off some heavy blows but jerked a forehand down the line long.

A pumped-up Thiem had his third straight game and would serve for his first Grand Slam title at 6-5. Stress sent spasms through his legs.

"I started little bit cramping at the end of the fifth," Thiem said. "It was the first time since years and years that I was cramping. But I guess it was not physical cramps; it was mentally.

"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."

Calling the trainer out, Thiem received massage on his left thigh to combat cramps. Seeing his opponent wounded, Zverev hammered a forehand down the line breaking to force the final tie breaker.

Seeing Thiem shaking out his legs between points, Zverev would have been wise to test the Austrian's shaky legs and force him to play longer rallies in the breaker. Instead, a jittery Zverev, who was combating cramps of his own, sailed a forehand down the line long before dumping his second double fault of the tiebreaker ceding a 5-3 lead.

"I was cramping in the tiebreaker really," Zverev said. "My left quad was cramping, I couldn't push off anymore. I couldn't actually hit the first serve anymore. So, yeah, that was the reason."

Dipping a pass near Zverev's ankles Thiem raced up to rap a forehand pass and earn double championship point at 6-4. Severe tension spiked as Thiem missed a forehand on his first championship point then watched Zverev barely push a 68 mph second serve over the net lulling Thiem into another forehand error to even it at 6-6.

That was the final plot twist. Zverev blocked back two volleys before Thiem torched a forehand pass for his third championship point.

When a weary Zverev sent a backhand wide, Thiem had his first Grand Slam title at last.

"It was such a big relief. I mean, obviously it was huge pressure in the match, huge emotions," Thiem said. "Physically it was super tough. Then also it was not easy four weeks in general. It was a lot coming through the mind, coming through the body. When I made that match point, when he missed that backhand, it was such a big relief.

"It's just the highest thing what you can achieve in tennis."

Reflecting on his Grand Slam batles, Thiem has said defeating Rafael Nadal in the Roland Garros final is the toughest task in sport.

Today, Thiem waged a war on multiple fronts fighting an assertive Zverev, twitchy nerves and festering fatigue and beat back all comers earning his maiden major the hard way in a sweaty and satisfying night in New York.


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