U.S. Open Final Provides a Tantalizing Taste of Tennis's Next Generation

For years, tennis fans have been wondering who will ascend after the Big Three era. Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev may have provided the answer during the U.S. Open final on Sunday night.
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Against all odds, they played the 2020 U.S. Open in New York. But it may as well have been staged in Arkansas—the Land of Opportunity. With Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal unable and unwilling to make the trip, and with Novak Djokovic self-sabotaging, this event gave someone else a chance to break the glass ceiling and win a major for the first time in four (!) years. (And let’s pause here: yes, not since the Obama administration has a player outside the Big Three cartel won a big prize.)

The great seizer, as it were: Dominic Thiem. Long pegged as a major winner, the 27-year-old Austrian fulfilled predictions today winning his first major with a ... well … what the hell was it? A dramatic, exhausting, weird, sometimes unwatchable, sometimes can’t-look-away compelling, poised, shaky, then poised five-set takedown of Germany’s Alexander Zverev 2-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 7-6, a four-hour-and-eight-minute bit of theater, sometimes absurdist. The level of play was not classic. The level of drama was. But Thiem persisted. And has a major to show for it.

Dominic Thiem of Austria celebrates his win over Alexander Zverev of Germany in the men's singles final match on day 14 of the 2020 U.S. Open tennis tournament

Dominic Thiem of Austria celebrates his win over Alexander Zverev of Germany in the men's singles final of the 2020 U.S. Open.

This match was a distillation of Thiem’s tournament. He hardly caught lightning in a bottle here. There were times when his tennis was dazzling, his one-handed backhand sizzling. Other times, he simply had to persist through rough patches and defeat both an opponent and his own worst instincts—including court positioning a Sherpa trek from the baseline.

Today, in his fourth major final, he hit the snooze bar for two sets and was nearly bounced from the tournament in straight sets—what would have made for a brutal defeat. Then he found his groove for the third and fourth. In the fifth set, Zverev served for the title at 5-3. Thiem broke him. Then Thiem served for title at 6-5. Zverev broke him. In a tiebreaker that was such a pivotal point in their respective careers, Thiem prevailed.

As sweet as today’s match will be for Thiem, it will be commensurately sour for Zverev. In his first final, uncowed by the occasion—the biggest of his career—he got off to a fast start in the first set, showing off both his power and versatility, serving viciously, and winning seven of his eight charges netward. An hour later, he was a few points from issuing both a straight set win and a forceful statement. Then the deluge. At 23, he will have plenty more opportunities to reverse this. But, as his tears during the trophy presentation portend, this will sting.

Alexander Zverev of Germany gets emotional as he address the crowd for the runner-up in the men's singles final match against Dominic Thiem of Austria on day 14 of the 2020 U.S. Open

Alexander Zverev of Germany gets emotional as he address the crowd for the runner-up in the men's singles final match of the 2020 U.S. Open.

For years the tennis salon has been wondering: who’s got next? We found out tonight. In Thiem, there might be a New King. Or this might be a one-off and we’ll return to the hegemony of the Big Three. But the plot thickened. And so did Thiem’s credentials.