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 truly 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 suspenseful than a typical straight-set affair.
“Was probably the toughest straight-set win I ever had,” said Thiem, looking drained but content at his post-match news conference.
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 reliable threat, and he will now face Alexander Zverev, the No. 5 seed, 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.
“Definitely they are also a part of the player I became now,” Thiem said.
But this time he did not have to face any of them and will be the favorite on Sunday 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: 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.
“I think a lot of players would have gone away,” Zverev said. “Sometimes you have to dig deep. Today I dug deep, dug very deep.”
This U.S. Open was an unusual event to begin with: staged during 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, or the reigning champion 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.
Thiem is a full-throttle competitor: a 21st-century version of his Austrian compatriot Thomas Muster, who rose to No. 1 and won the French Open in the 1990s.
His beautiful one-handed backhand with its baroque follow-through gets much of the attention, but his forehand does most of the damage, and that proved true once more under duress against Medvedev. Thiem repeatedly found an extra gear and a brighter idea that Medvedev, creative to a fault on Friday, could not match.
But technology, or rather the lack of it, also played a role in the first set. With Medvedev serving at 2-3 with break point against him, he hit a first serve that Thiem returned at his feet. Medvedev flicked a reflexive forehand into the net and immediately insisted that he had challenged the service call because he thought it had landed out.
Damien Dumusois, the chair umpire, told him that his challenge had come too late and Medvedev protested and crossed to the other side of the net to show Dumusois the ball mark. Crossing is against the code of conduct, and Medvedev received a code violation, and lost his serve even though a Hawk-Eye replay for television showed that the ball had indeed landed out.
“Sorry, I think I killed someone right?” Medvedev said sarcastically to Wayne McKewen, a Grand Slam supervisor before apologizing again, hand over his heart, to Dumusois.
If this had been any other year at the U.S. Open, that exchange would have been met with a raucous reception from a full house in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Medvedev, a temperamental and charismatic Russian who was jeered in 2019 and then became a crowd favorite as he made a surprise run to the singles final, played instead to the sound of silence in 2020.
“It’s sad to play without the crowd,” Medvedev said. “As we can see last year, even sometimes when they are against you, you can interact with them, which is good.”
The incident with Dumusois was the latest example of an incorrect call remaining incorrect in a tournament that used an all-electronic line calling system with no line judges on the outside courts but maintained the traditional system in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I got a little bit lucky,” said Thiem, who went on to sweep the remaining games in the first set.
There was nothing lucky about the second and third set as Thiem battled through deficits and discomfort to solve the riddle of Medvedev’s tactic-shuffling game.
“We can talk about some shots, losing concentration in the first set, but Dominic played really good,” said Medvedev, the No. 3 seed. “Tennis is all about small points. Sometimes you win those points, sometimes you lose them. Today I lost the most important points.”
Zverev looked anything but likely to win on Friday in the early sets 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.
“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, nicknamed Sascha, finished with 24 aces and eight double faults, and won 78 percent of the points when he put his powerful first serve in play. The last German man to win the U.S. Open was Boris Becker in 1989, shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. But Zverev, born in Hamburg in 1997, will clearly need to play a much more complete match against Thiem than he did against Carreño Busta 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.”
Thiem knows that too well.
“From the moment Novak was out of the tournament, it was clear that there’s going to be a new Grand Slam champion,” Thiem said. “From that moment on, that was also out of my mind. I was just focusing on the remaining guys left in the draw.
“Now it’s Sascha remaining, the last one.”