Seven months ago, Dominic Thiem said it would count more if he won his first Grand Slam with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic still around.
What’s the value of this one?
Thiem, the second-seeded Austrian, rallied past German Alexander Zverev 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (6) in the U.S. Open final to become a major champion without having to go through any of the men who have combined for 56 major titles.
“It doesn’t matter at the end who did I beat or which tournament it is,” Thiem said late Sunday night. “We both didn’t face one of the Big Three, so I guess that was in the back of the head for both of us. That’s why we were on nerves.”
If the final wasn’t always beautiful tennis, the title was still hard-earned.
Zverev, the 23-year-old face of the next generation, bullied a nervous Thiem in the first set. But he began hiccuping late in the second. Still, he broke Thiem to go up 2-1 in the third. But he allowed Thiem to break right back and work his way into a match that lasted four hours, one minute.
“I’m playing bad, I’m way too tight, legs are heavy, arms are heavy,” Thiem said. “But I always had hope and the expectation that at one point I free up. Luckily it was not too late.”
In the fifth, each man was broken while serving for the match, forcing the tiebreak.
For years, Thiem, Zverev and others battled unsuccessfully to unseat the legends. The fight extended as both men cramped. Zverev hit a 68 mile-per-hour serve, and won the point. He also double-faulted twice.
Thiem finally ended it on his third championship point, becoming the first man to win the U.S. Open final from two sets down since Pancho Gonzales in 1949. The last man to do it in any major final was Argentine Gaston Gaudio at the 2004 French Open (the last major without a Big Three member in the semifinals).
“The match was really tough, like a drama, like a movie until the end,” said Nicolas Massu, Thiem’s Chilean coach who swept singles and doubles gold medals at the 2004 Olympics.
Thiem became the first man to win his first Slam in six years and the first major champion other than Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in four years. He’s the first player born in the 1990s to win a Slam and the second Austrian, after Thomas Muster, who took the 1995 French Open.
(Coincidentally, Austria failed to win an individual Alpine skiing World Cup season title this year. The last time that happened? 1995.)
Federer (knee injury) and Nadal (travel concerns) missed the Open. Djokovic was defaulted in the fourth round last Sunday for hitting a ball that struck a linesperson in the throat.
Thiem became a co-favorite with Russian Daniil Medvedev, whom he throttled in a semifinal sweep Friday night. All week, Thiem downplayed any difference in not having the Big Three in the bubble.
“It doesn’t matter if I play one of the Big Three members or if I play somebody else,” he said before the final. “From the moment Novak was out of the tournament, it was clear that there’s going to be a new Grand Slam champion. From that moment on, that was also out of my mind.”
No doubt Thiem paid his dues.
He played three previous Grand Slam finals, losing to Nadal twice at the French Open and to Djokovic at the Australian Open in February. Nadal is a record 12-time French Open champion (going for 13 starting in two weeks). Djokovic is a record eight-time Australian Open champion.
“I really hope, also, that I win my maiden slam when they’re still around,” Thiem said after falling to Djokovic in five sets in Melbourne, “because it just counts more.”
This one counts plenty.
Thiem entered a Slam final as the favorite for the first time after dropping one set over his first six matches. He admitted afterward that the thought of losing — and dropping to 0-4 in Slam finals — was in his head.
“It’s always in your head,” he said. “Is this chance ever coming back again? This, that, all these thoughts, which are not great to play your best tennis, to play free.”
As time goes on, the details will fade. Who was there, who wasn’t. How Thiem played.
But this fact will endure: Thiem is a major champion.
“I expect that it’s going to be easier for me now in the biggest tournaments,” he said. “I had a great career so far, way better career than I could ever dreamt of, but until today there was still a big part, a big goal missing.
“I dedicated basically my whole life until this point to win one of the four majors. Now I did it.”
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