Dominic Thiem became the first player in the Open Era who began in 1968 to rally from straight sets and win a US Open final when he beat his friend, Alexander Zverev, 2-6 4 -6 6-4 6-3 7-6 (6) Sunday in New York.
This had not been done since 1949.
And there have been more firsts. The popular Austrian became the first new men’s Grand Slam champion since Marin Cilic in 2014 and it was the first tie-break of the fifth set in a final at the US Open.
Thiem somehow triumphed in the four-hour game despite appearing to be suffering from leg cramps during the tie-break.
A tournament marked by returns
Perhaps the Thiem rally came as no surprise, as huge comebacks marked the final three days of the tournament. In Saturday’s women’s final, Naomi Osaka overcame a set and nearly 3-0 to beat Victoria Azarenka.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both missed the same major tournament for the first time since 1999 and world No.1 Novak Djokovic was sent off in the fourth round for hitting a ball that inadvertently hit a linesman in the throat .
But even more unusual than that this year, the US Open was held without fans due to the coronavirus pandemic but with a bubble in place.
Thiem might have taken advantage of the legendary Big Three’s absences, but the 27-year-old has taken down each of them at least four times.
A Grand Slam title was ahead, given his place in three other major finals.
On paper, he also had a more difficult draw than Zverev, who didn’t face a Top 25 foe until Sunday.
Journalists will no doubt ask him if an Achilles injury he suffered in the semi-final against 2019 finalist Daniil Medvedev contributed to his nervous and lethargic departure. He wouldn’t be the type to say if that was the case, though.
But seventh Zverev – who struggled in his two previous matches as a major favorite – has played the first two sets of his first Grand Slam final.
When ATP came up with its NextGen slogan several years ago to promote its young stars, he was at the top of the class.
A match full of twists and turns
The 23-year-old serves over 130 miles an hour, a forehand has exceeded 100 miles an hour and he’s combined attacking tennis with the kickback. He even served and flew successfully, taking advantage of Thiem’s deep return position. But 15 double faults ultimately canceled it.
The only risky moment for Zverev in the first two sets came halfway in the second. A combination of Thiem’s daring tennis and Zverev’s double faults – they were a problem for him – saw a 5-1 lead shrink to 5-4.
On his fifth set point, however, Zverev officially took a two-set advantage. It got even better for him when he broke for 2-1 in the third.
But now in the face of the pressure to try to close the game, Zverev’s level plummeted and Thiem’s level rose.
Thiem immediately broke and then broke again at 5-4 to cause a fourth set.
Thiem established a breakpoint at 2-3 after winning one of the tournament’s rallies, quickly defending himself around the court before hitting a forehand as he crossed the line. In the absence of the fans, his entourage roared him. He didn’t break there but made it 4-3.
Thiem has the ability to get his opponents rolling with his power play and when he beat it 1-0 in the fifth it looked like it was going to happen again.
But suddenly in the favored position, as he was at the start, he closed for 1-1.
Then came another great rally, at 0-15. This time it was Zverev defending heroically in front of a volley winner on a fierce backhand from Thiem.
Zverev steadily put pressure on them on serve afterwards and got his award at 4-3 as Thiem was forced into a backhand error.
As the pressure continued to change, so did the score. Zverev was shattered at 5-3 and Thiem produced some magic to escape from 15-30 to 4-5, capping the game with a scorching forehand pass.
Zverev slumped down, naturally, and made a mistake on a forehand to call 5-6.
But the twists and turns were not over.
Thiem was ill, calling the coach. He wasn’t moving freely, was himself broken and dragged by an early mini-break in the tie-breaker.
Two double faults from Zverev gave him a reprieve and Thiem took a 6-4 lead. The first two match points have been erased. On the first, Thiem missed a forehand with Zverev stranded.
But at 6-6, he snatched a passing shot to earn a third championship point. He then sealed it on a backhand error and sank on the pitch.
Thiem joked that he might have to call Andy Murray if he loses on Sunday, as the Scotsman lost his first four Grand Slam finals.
He might still want to call Murray. They can discuss what it feels like to hoist a Grand Slam trophy.