So, there we have it. The paradox that tennis, the young man’s game, had never had a male grand slam winner born in the 1990s, is over- the stranglehold of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal finally broken on Sunday 13th as Dominic Thiem came back from two sets down to beat Alexander Zverev at the Arthur Ashe stadium to be crowned US Open champion.
Of course, it helped that two of the ‘big three’ didn’t participate- Federer and Nadal withdrawing over a mixture of Covid and injury fears, perhaps wary of their stature as role models in the game after Djokovic’s disaster in testing positive for Covid-19 after hosting a tennis tour across Eastern Europe in June (in which the two finalists, Thiem and Zverev, also competed). As for Djokovic, he was the red hot favourite going into the tournament, where anything other than a Djokovic vs Thiem/Medvedev final seemed impossible, and was imperious form up until the fourth round, dropping just the one set to the mercurial Kyle Edmund in a tiebreak. Rules are rules, but his disqualification in the round of 16 to Pablo Carreño Busta for accidentally striking a line judge was harsh. However, this meant that the final eight smelt blood, and where, at least the short-term talk of the future of male grand slams, began to change.
Alex Zverev struggled and battled against Borna Ćorić, eventually going on to win in 4 sets, before struggling further in the semi against Carreño Busta, who surprisingly knocked out Denis Shapovalov in the quarter, going through in 5 sets after a pitiful opening two sets. Such inconsistencies would strongly set the tone for the final. The other side of the draw would prove even more enlightening, however. Daniil Medvedev dispatched of compatriot Andrey Rublev far easier than expected, winning in straight sets. Admittedly two of these were on a tiebreak, but there was no period of the game where anything other than a comfortable win for Medvedev seemed plausible, stretching Rublev along the baseline with his aggressive crosscourt forehands. Thiem dispatched of Alex de Minaur in the other, meaning that the Medvedev Thiem semi felt like the real final. Having dropped one set between them before this stage (Thiem against Marin Čilić), an even game and potential five setter seemed likely, but Thiem won the points at the key moments to set up the final against Zverev.
The predictions of the final were quite consistent- Thiem, after losing three slam finals previous, winning one set more than the last each time, had the experience of the big game which Zverev, competing in his first final, didn’t. After all, Thiem had taken the king of hard-court tennis, Djokovic, to five sets in the Australian Open in February 2020 and could have and probably should have won. Moreover, Thiem’s confidence seemed to be through the roof, growing in strength as the tournament progressed, typified by his signature play of luring his opponent into setting him up for backhand which he would rip down the near line. Yet the opening two sets didn’t follow this narrative- quite the opposite; Thiem completely froze and looked extremely tense, later admitting to nerves swelling him up, given that this was his first slam final where he was favourite in. Conversely, Zverev stayed calm, allowing Thiem to make unforced errors and unnerving Thiem further through his typical aggression. Losing the first two sets in this manner, everyone was waiting for Thiem to finally snap into action, which he duly did in the third and fourth sets, putting Zverev’s mettle to the test in a tournament where it hadn’t been truly tested- yes he had dropped a few sets, but none of his opponents up until the final were ranked above 20th in the world. The final set was, disappointingly, a battle of the bottle-jobs, both men being broken twice and then breaking immediately back after a series of unforced error, the final ending in a suitable manner with Thiem winning a gruelling tie break from an unforced error.
It was such a disappointing way for such a monumental moment in men’s tennis to occur- without one being emphatic and without fans. But no man deserves it more than Thiem- the man who has ran the big three the closest over the course of the four-slam period. Although no-one is yet to truly challenge their stranglehold at Wimbledon, the signs point to the fact that this may have occurred this summer. Medvedev and Zverev have also now got slam finals under their belt, and there have now been four male grand slam finals in a row where it has gone to five sets, showing the gap is shortening.
The King of the Clay will return this autumn to retain his French Open crown, but Thiem will more than fancy his chances at Roland Garros. They will likely be on the same side of the draw, thus denying us of a fascination final. But in the 2018 and 2019 finals between these two opponents, Thiem has given Nadal a run for his money- and now the monkey is off his back after winning his maiden slam title and breaking their stranglehold, Thiem will be fearless in playing his own game.
And not just him- the other members of the new wave have now seen that the stranglehold can be broken, and in seeing so, men’s slam tennis has changed forever. 2020 will be remembered as the start of the new era.