This article was our featured cover story in the November/December 2020 issue of New York Tennis Magazine. Click Here to see the full digital edition
After a long, multiple-week stint inside the U.S. Open bubble earlier this summer, Dominic Thiem had one more hurdle to jump over in order to finally capture that elusive first Grand Slam title of his career.
Standing in his way was Germany’s Alexander Zverev, a player at a similar point in his career to Thiem: a perennial Top 10 player who had not been able to win the “big one”. Sure, Thiem had already reached multiple Grand Slam finals prior to this year’s U.S. Open; but both players possessed high expectations, only further fueled by the absence of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and the early departure of Novak Djokovic, at this year’s tournament.
“We are really good friends,” Thiem said of Zverev. “We have a long-term friendship, long-term rivalry.”
That rivalry was put to the test in the championship match in front of an oddly empty Arthur Ashe Stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, a strange stage upon which one of these players would be crowned a Grand Slam champion.
Things did not look promising for Thiem early, as Zverev, two days after coming back two-sets-to-love down in his semifinal match against Pablo Carreno Busta, raced out to a two-sets-to-love lead of his own.
“It was tough to stay in there and still believe,” admitted Thiem. “But I did. It’s a slam final. I said to myself, ‘I’m playing bad, I’m way too tight, legs are heavy, arms are heavy.’ But I always had hope and the expectation that at one point I’d free up. Luckily it was not too late when I broke him back in the third set. The belief was always there. From that moment when I broke him back for three-all in the third set, the belief got stronger and stronger.”
Relying on his experience in major finals, Thiem refused to give in and did his best to make sure the nerves were felt on the other side of the net. That break in the third set was crucial, and after winning that set, the Austrian committed just two unforced errors in the fourth set to send the championship into a deciding fifth set.
With physical and mental fatigue setting in, and the prospects of a maiden Grand Slam within reach, both players displayed nerves in that final set. Once again though, it would be Zverev who jumped out to the lead and had a chance to serve for the championship at 5-3. But the match was not meant to end in this fashion, and Thiem broke back, and the finals would ultimately head into a deciding tiebreaker to determine the victor. While both players piled up the errors throughout the fifth set and the tiebreak, the battle of attrition would be won by Thiem as at 7-6 in the breaker a Zverev backhand crashed into the net, delivering Thiem his first ever major title.
“In the end, of course, we are both experienced enough and we both know that in a fifth-set tiebreak anyone can win,” said Thiem. “I think it’s very understandable that we both didn’t play our highest tennis anymore. When he served for the match, I was struggling physically, but I also thought that he is not the freshest anymore. I was just hoping to maybe get another chance.”
Thiem, as he said, was clearly physically drained and not moving well, but found a way to work his way through that pain and be the last man standing. It was his fourth career Grand Slam final, and one that he will never forget.
“It was such a big relief. It’s just the highest thing you can achieve in tennis,” said Thiem. “I achieved a life goal, a dream [for] myself, which I had for many, many years. Of course [I had that dream] as a kid as well as when I started to play tennis. But back then it was so far away. At one point I realized that, ‘Wow, maybe one day I can really win one of the four biggest titles in tennis.’ I put a lot of work in. I dedicated basically my whole life until this point to win one of the four majors. Now I did it.”
That dream began as a young boy growing up in Wiener Neustadt, a city just to the south of Vienna. Both of his parents were tennis coaches, and his father, Wolfgang, began teaching at Gunter Bresnik’s academy in Vienna, and at the age of nine, Thiem was working full-time with Bresnik, a coach-player relationship that would last up until last year.
He has always been known as one of the top clay players in the world, and that was evident early on when he reached the finals of the French Open Boys event in 2011. That same year, he turned pro, and he would reach his first tour-level final in 2014 in his home country at the Austrian Open in Kitzbühel.
And now for the last several years, Thiem has been a mainstay inside the Top 10 and has been consistently a threat at the Grand Slams. While he has never made it out of the fourth round on the grass at Wimbledon, he reached the Australian Open finals earlier this year, the French Open finals in 2018 and 2019, and now, of course, the U.S. Open finals this year, taking it one step further by hoisting the winning trophy.
The potential of losing a fourth major final was not lost on Thiem as he prepared for his showdown with Zverev.
“I wanted this title so much, and of course it was also in my head that if I lost this one, it’s 0-4,” he said. “It’s always in your head: ‘Is this chance ever coming back again?’ This, that, all these thoughts, which are not great [when you are trying] to play your best tennis and to play free.”
But those ghosts, demons or whatever you want to call them are now vanquished, and the proverbial monkey is off of his back. He faced a tough task in rebounding just weeks later to compete in the French Open, falling in the quarterfinals, but heading into 2021 there is little doubt that Thiem will remain a threat at the majors.
“I expect that it’s going to be easier for me now in the biggest tournaments because, of course, I had it in the back of my head that I had a great career so far, way better career than I could ever dreamt of,” said Thiem. “But until today, there was still a big part, a big goal, missing. With this goal achieved, I think and I hope that I’m going to be a little bit more relaxed and play a little bit more freely at the biggest events.”
No matter what he accomplishes in the remainder of his career, one that will surely have plenty of accolades and wins still to come, there will always be a special place in Thiem’s heart for New York City; it will forever be the birthplace of his first major trophy.
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org