Dominic Thiem has certainly paid his dues in the long-running era of the Big Three. And on Sunday, with Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer all out of the picture, Thiem will get his next and best chance to win his first Grand Slam singles title.
He earned it on Friday with a 6-2, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5) semifinal victory over Daniil Medvedev at the United States Open that was much more grinding and draining than a normal straight-set affair.
“Definitely anything but,” Thiem said, with sweat dripping off his face and clothes during the post-match interview.
Thiem, the No. 2 seed from Austria, had to rally from a service break down in each of the final two sets against the unpredictable Medvedev and had to save a set point in the second-set tiebreaker.
But despite pain in his right Achilles’ tendon and two falls in the match that left him shouting about his shoes, Thiem was the more balanced and steady threat, and he will now face Alexander Zverev in the final on Sunday.
The winner will be the first new Grand Slam singles champion in the men’s game in six years. It will be the first major final for Zverev, a 23-year-old German who has long been considered a superstar in the making. It will be the fourth major final for Thiem, 27, who has lost the last two French Open finals to Nadal and lost a taut five-set Australian Open final to Djokovic earlier this year.
“If I win I have my first,” Thiem said. “If not I probably have to call Andy Murray about how it is to be 0-4.”
Murray, the British star, lost his first four major finals before finally breaking through to win the U.S. Open in 2012.
Thiem has beaten all three of the Big Three (and Murray) on multiple occasions, but throughout his career, they have blocked his path at the Grand Slam tournaments that matter most. This time, he did not have to face any of them and will be the favorite against Zverev, whom he has beaten seven times in nine matches, including all three of their Grand Slam duels.
Thiem defeated Zverev in their most recent match, in a four-set semifinal at this year’s Australian Open.
“It’s all or nothing,” Thiem said. “The last one we had was an amazing one in Australia: two tiebreaks for me, super, super close. And I guess the main thing I have to focus on is to return good. His first serve is out of this world: so fast and so precise. So just try to get that back in play. It’s a great friendship, a great rivalry I feel with him. I’m looking forward to playing that first major final with him.”
Zverev beat Pablo Carreño Busta 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 in the first semifinal earlier Friday.
It was the first time in Zverev’s relatively short career that he had won a match after losing the first two sets. But what mattered most to Zverev was taking one more giant step toward a major title.
The Grand Slam opportunity for Thiem and Zverev arrived at a time when the U.S. Open had already flung wide open.
It was an unusual event to begin with: staged in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic with no fans in the stands and players forbidden from traveling to their usual playgrounds in Manhattan from the tournament site in Queens. It also began without Federer, who was injured, and the reigning champion Rafael Nadal, who chose to stay in Europe to focus on clay court tournaments, including the upcoming French Open.
Djokovic made the trip to New York but knocked himself out of the tournament in the fourth round against Carreño Busta when he struck a ball in frustration and inadvertently hit a line judge in the throat. He was defaulted for unsportsmanlike conduct, which guaranteed that someone would win his first Grand Slam singles title.
Thiem and Zverev, along with Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, are all in their 20s and have rightly been considered the most likely candidates to succeed the Big Three. But Zverev looked anything but likely to win on Friday in the early going as he mistimed groundstrokes, struggled to win quick points with his heavy serve, double faulted into the net and spread his long arms wide and looked imploringly at members of his team in the sparsely populated stands of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I was actually looking at the scoreboard when I was down two sets to love,” Zverev said. “I was like, I can’t believe it. I’m playing in a semifinal where I’m supposed to be the favorite, and I am down two sets to love, and I have no chance, I’m playing that bad.
“So I knew I had to come up with better tennis and knew I had to be more stable.”
Easier thought than done, but Zverev is used to working his way out of trouble and though he had never come all the way back before from two sets down, he has proved himself in five-set matches: He is now 14-6 in them.
Zverev finished with 24 aces and eight double faults, and won 78 percent of the points when he put his powerful first serve in play. But he will clearly need to play a much more complete match if he is to pose a serious threat in the final.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Zverev said of his big comeback. “But there’s still one step to go for me.”