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Dominic Thiem never stopped believing he could win the 2020 US Open

NEW YORK — Dominic Thiem has been repeatedly knocked out in Grand Slam finals by the game’s icons, but he has always popped to his feet and dusted himself off, eager to try again. His persistence finally paid off in a big way, as he won the US Open on an extraordinary Sunday afternoon at Arthur Ashe Stadium, becoming the first man in 71 years to win this title after losing the first two sets of the final.

Thiem fell far behind but patiently tracked down and outlasted his friend and rival, first-time Grand Slam finalist Alexander Zverev, in a match that lasted a tick more than four hours by the score of 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (6). Late in the third set, Zverev was six points from wrapping up the match in just two hours.

When the unpredictable match that featured 15 breaks and 31 break points finally ended on a backhand error by Zverev, Thiem fell to the court, with his body forming a nearly perfect “X.” He briefly covered his face with his hands, then rose to meet his good friend, who came around the net to greet him.

There was no socially distanced racket tap to end this one. The men exchanged a stylized handshake of their own and hugged. Zverev cradled Thiem’s head in his right hand, and Thiem let his head rest on the taller man’s shoulder, as if he were the one who needed consolation.

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Thiem went to his chair and sat back, beaming. Soon he started laughing. Zverev sat on the far side of the umpire’s chair, with his chin resting in his steepled hands, gazing straight ahead. He sat that way for a good long while.

Thiem, 27, and Zverev, 23, were the youngest pair of Grand Slam finalists since the 2012 Australian Open, where the opponents were Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. This match did not suffer in comparison to that one, and it hit an even higher note of poignancy because of the friendship between the pair.

Thiem said in his trophy presentation speech, “We [Zverev and Thiem] started to know each other in 2014, when we both were ranked close to 100. We developed a great friendship. Then our rivalry began in 2016 [in Munich, Germany]. We made great things happen on the court and off since then. It’s amazing how far our journey brought us to share this moment. I wish we could have two winners because we both deserved this.”

Dominic Thiem is the first man to come back from two sets down to win the US Open final since Pancho Gonzales defeated Ted Schroeder in 1949. Al Bello/Getty Images

Since he first made the French Open final in 2018, Thiem has established himself as a successful challenger to the Big Three of Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Thiem has a respectable 14-18 record against the trio (Zverev isn’t too shabby, at 7-11). From 2016 to 2019, Thiem accumulated more wins (211) on the ATP Tour than any other pro. What he failed to do was break through in his previous three Grand Slam final appearances, most recently in February at the Australian Open. Djokovic shut him down there, adding to the two losses to Nadal in the 2018 and 2019 French Open finals.

But Thiem was eager to try again.

“It was easier, for sure, in a different era to win big titles,” he said after that Australian Open final. “That’s 100 percent sure. But I’m happy I can compete with these guys on the best level. I really hope also that I win my maiden Slam when they’re still around because it just counts more.”

Those icons are still around, though only one of them — Djokovic — made the trip to New York to play in the “double in the bubble” events. Djokovic was unbeaten in 18 matches in 2020 before the lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. He picked up right where he left off at the prequel to the US Open, winning the Western & Southern Open. He was the heavy favorite to win his 18th major title, especially with Federer out for the year and Nadal and Stan Wawrinka choosing to remain in Europe to prepare for the French Open.

But Djokovic was defaulted during his fourth-round match after he inadvertently hit a line judge with a ball hit in frustration. Thiem’s reaction was telling. “From the moment Novak was out of the tournament, it was clear that there’s going to be a new Grand Slam champion,” he said. “From that moment on, that was also out of my mind. I was just focusing on the remaining guys left in the draw.”

The main stumbling block for Thiem at that point looked to be last year’s US Open runner-up, Daniil Medvedev in the semifinals. When Thiem won, he found himself the favorite in a Grand Slam for the first time. He said he felt ready. “It was really tough to digest that loss in Australia, as I was super close back then. I’m happy that I gave myself in a pretty short time after that another chance.”

Victory was sweet for Thiem, who entered the US Open men’s final having lost his first three major finals. Al Bello/Getty Images

Zverev also felt prepared to win his first major, even though the odds seemed stacked against him. He won just six matches in 2020 leading up to this event, and worse, he was fighting a bad case of the serving yips. He had slowly slipped from a career-high ranking of No. 3 to his current No. 7, and his record against top-10 opponents in majors was 0-7, with two of those losses coming against Thiem. Zverev looked shaky in his two previous matches. He was almost eliminated in the semifinals by Pablo Carreno Busta, who won the first two sets before Zverev shook off the cobwebs.

Thiem knew firsthand how dangerous his friend could be when he dialed in that curious combination of overwhelming power and surprisingly good defense. The two battled through a long, close, four-set semifinal at the Australian Open. It was the first time Zverev managed to go that deep at a major.

“The media put me as a favorite,” Thiem said. “But I remembered how tough he was in Australia.”

Adding to Thiem’s concerns, he felt “super tight” all day leading up to the match and struggled with his expectations all afternoon and evening.

Aware that he could not afford another slow start, Zverev played a nearly flawless first set. He was alert and aggressive, while Thiem was tight and slow. The set went by swiftly, with Zverev clocking 16 winners. He won 12 of 13 first-serve points and seven of his eight net approaches and made only six unforced errors. His momentum carried over to the next set and beyond, as Thiem continued to struggle with unforced errors and poor movement. But early in the third set, Zverev — fresh off a service break that put him up 2-1 — took his foot off the gas.

“It was hard to stay there and still believe [I could win],” Thiem said of that stage. “I was way too tight, my legs were heavy, my arms were heavy, but luckily I was able to free myself up and from there, my self-belief just got stronger and stronger.”

Thiem was able to break back, thanks to a few errors by Zverev, and the match took on a different look. Zverev failed to attack, and Thiem overcame his serving woes. The match became a struggle of shifting momentum, high anxiety and fluctuating quality from both men.

Thiem, left, and Alexander Zverev share a hug after the hard-fought US Open men’s final, a testimony to their long-term friendship and rivalry. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Thiem’s experience in important matches against elite players might have come in handy as the match ground toward its conclusion, but he said he found himself unable to tap into it.

“I wanted this title so much,” Thiem said. “And [during the match,] of course, it was always in my head: ‘If I lose this one, it’s 0-for-4 [in Grand Slam finals].’ And always in your head also is the question, ‘If I lose this, is the chance ever coming back again?’ All these thoughts are not great to play your best tennis, to play free. So honestly, the experience didn’t help at all.”

The other obstacle for Thiem was that Zverev wanted it just as badly. But as the match progressed, the sharp edge of his aggression began to dull on the grit of Thiem’s resistance. His forehand, fierce in the early stages, began to misfire more frequently. He lost a bit of speed on his serve. As the score approached the tiebreaker in the final set, a little anxiety crept in.

“I was super close to being a Grand Slam champion,” Zverev said later. “I was just a few points away [early in the match]. But to me, I had a lot of chances in the fifth set.”

The match had one last surprise in store in the tiebreaker. Thiem, who appeared to be cramping, was struggling. But Zverev was unable to fully exploit his condition because, as he later said, his own left quadriceps muscle was beginning to seize up. That prevented him from getting enough oomph on his serve to break through Thiem’s defenses one final, decisive time.

When it was finally over, Thiem lay on the floor of Ashe, at long last a Grand Slam champion. He was exhausted, but more than anything, he felt unburdened.

“It was such a big relief,” he said. “It was such huge pressure, such huge emotions in that match.”

There were critics of this tournament from the get-go, asserting that it deserved an “asterisk” because of the lack of fans, the strange and unpredictable conditions in the bio-secure bubble and the absence of Federer and Nadal. When Djokovic fell out and Thiem belted his way into a final against the most overlooked of contenders, some predicted a routine win by No. 2 seed Thiem. Instead, we witnessed a final match won by a deserving champion who had waited a long time, keeping the faith even as two legends took him down him in previous attempts. Thiem didn’t care. He considered it a privilege to be able to match strokes with them.

Thiem earned his merit badge at this US Open, and the USTA and New York City got the final they deserved.

As Stacey Allaster, the US Open tournament director, said earlier in the day, “We are closing down this very historic moment for our sport here in New York City with a very healthy and safe US Open. We’re back. New York rallied. The US Open rallied. That, I think, is the other big takeaway for us: We’re back.”

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