Dominic Thiem, arguably the best male player in history without a Grand Slam title, and Alexander Zverev, delivering on years of major championship promise, meet in Sunday’s U.S. Open final, each looking to surface in the absence of the Big Three.
Thiem, three times a Slam runner-up, won Friday’s marquee semifinal over Russian Daniil Medvedev 6-2, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5).
The No. 2 seed from Austria has dropped just one set in six matches and is the clear favorite against Zverev, against whom he has a 7-2 head-to-head record.
Medvedev, the 2019 U.S. Open runner-up and No. 3 seed, unraveled in the first set after the chair umpire ruled he was too late requesting to challenge his own serve being called in on a break point.
He was also broken while serving for the second and third sets.
In the early semifinal, the fifth seed Zverev woke up from a horrendous first two sets to beat 20th seed Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 and reach his first major final.
For the first time since the 2004 French Open, the semifinals at a Grand Slam did not include any of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.
Federer (two right knee operations) and Nadal (coronavirus pandemic travel concerns) skipped the U.S. Open. No. 1 Djokovic was defaulted in the fourth round for hitting a ball that struck a linesperson.
For the first time since 2014, a man will win his first Grand Slam title. For the first time ever, a man born in the 1990s will win a Slam.
“Now it gets interesting,” Zverev said last Sunday afternoon, soon after Djokovic was penalized. “Now I think is the time where it gets really interesting.”
For most of the last two years, Thiem has been the closest to breaking up the triumvirate.
The 27-year-old lost to Nadal in back-to-back French Open finals and squandered a two-sets-to-one lead on Djokovic in the Australian Open final in February.
Now, he goes into a Slam final as the favorite for the first time.
Thiem can join Andre Agassi and Goran Ivanisevic as men to win their first major after losing their first three finals.
Or, he can join Ivan Lendl and Andy Murray as men to lose their first four Slam finals (both won their fifth finals).
“If I win, I have my first,” Thiem said. “If not, I probably have to call Andy Murray how it is with 0-4.”
Zverev’s triumph Friday marked his first-ever win after dropping the first two sets, but it did nothing to change the narrative that the Thiem-Medvedev winner was expected to lift the trophy.
“I’m supposed to be the favorite [against Carreno Busta], and I’m down two sets to love, and I have no chance. I’m playing that bad. I knew I had to come up with better tennis,” said Zverev, a 23-year-old German whose parents were Russian tennis players. “I’m through to my first Grand Slam final, and that’s all that matters.”
Zverev, who is 6-foot-6 and lean, but powerful with an albatross’ reach, has been the face of the men’s “next gen” since at least the 2018 ATP Finals, when he swept Federer and Djokovic en route to the season-ending crown.
Zverev’s record in majors was less impressive until this year. He made his first Slam semifinal at the Australian Open in January, falling to Thiem in four after winning the opening set.
“Super, super close,” Thiem said Friday, reflecting on their last matchup.
At the U.S. Open, Zverev needed four sets to win four of his first five matches before going the distance with Carreno Busta.
Still, once Djokovic was defaulted, Zverev became the clear favorite to reach the final from the top half of the draw. Carreno Busta, the 20th seed, was his highest-ranked opponent to get there.
“There’s going to be two players left in the tournament,” Zverev, who can become the youngest male Slam winner since Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 U.S. Open, said while Thiem and Medvedev played. “One of them is going to be holding up that trophy. I have a chance.”
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