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Mind Over Matter As Thiem Beats His Demons And Zverev To Win His First Grand Slam Crown • 2020 U.S.Open Tennis Champion

By Alix Ramsay

Maybe it would have easier to have played Novak Djokovic in the final; may be then it would have felt more normal.

As it was, Dominic Thiem just about managed to keep body and soul together for four hours and one minute to win become the US Open champion, beating his great friend Alexander Zverev 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 on Sunday evening.

At last, at the fourth time of asking, he had his hands on a grand slam trophy and the relief was plain for all to see. In the era of the Big Three (who had, between them, won the last 13 grand slams), the Austrian and world No.3 had won a major title.

But the fact that none of the Big Three were there just made it all the harder for Thiem. He is 27, he had been in three finals before and taken his punishment from Rafa Nadal twice at Roland Garros and once from Novak Djokovic at Melbourne Park. Now facing the 23-year-old Zverev who was playing his first major final, this was his biggest chance.

And that is when the terrifying whispers started, those little voices deep within his psyche chattering away: what if you blow it? What if you don’t win? What then? Will you ever get a chance like this again? How will you cope?

“I was so tight in the beginning,” Thiem said. “Maybe it was not even good that I played in previous major finals. I mean, I wanted this title so much, and of course there was also in my head that if I lose this one, it’s 0-4. It’s always in your head. Is this chance ever coming back again? This, that, all these thoughts, which are not great to play your best tennis, to play free.

“That’s what exactly happened in the beginning. Luckily then things changed in the third set. At the end was complete open match, 50-50. I think the experience [of playing in previous finals] didn’t mean that much today.”

He was two sets and a break down before he managed to get a toehold in the match. Zverev, he of the dodgy second serve and the multiple double faults, was serving like a bazooka and he was playing like a man possessed. At the other end of the court, Thiem was shackled with nerves. But then, in that third set, he finally managed to break the German. Game on.

They homed in on the fifth set but by that stage, Thiem was hobbled with cramp in his thigh. The Achilles problem that he had suffered in the semi-finals was fine, it was just the tension of the occasion that was causing the trouble.

“I started little bit cramping at the end of the fifth,” he explained. “It was the first time since years and years that I was cramping. But I guess it was not physical cramps; it was mentally. I was super, super tight the whole day actually and then in the beginning of the match.

“Somehow the belief today was stronger than the body, and I’m super happy about that.”

Even so, Zverev served for the match at 5-3. And that is when his nerves kicked in. The huge serve was now travelling at a fraction of its former speed. He was broken twice in succession. Now it was Thiem’s turn to try and serve it out – and he was broken. On it went into the tiebreak.

Zverev took the early lead but then lost it again with a double fault, his 14th of the night. His 15th allowed Thiem to edge ahead and serving at 7-6, on his third match point, all his dreams came true: Zverev’s backhand sailed wide. Thiem was the champion of New York.

“It was such a big relief,” Thiem said. “I mean, obviously it was huge pressure in the match, huge emotions. Physically it was super tough.

“Then also it was not easy four weeks in general. It was a lot coming through the mind, coming through the body.

“When I made that match point, when he missed that backhand, it was such a big relief. It’s just the highest thing what you can achieve in tennis.”

For Zverev, it was unbearable. He had come so, so close and yet his limping, nerve-racked friend had won the day.

As he sat in his chair, he stared into the middle distance like a man about to face a firing squad. When it came to the presentation ceremony, he could barely speak and broke down when he tried to thank his parents for their support. They had both tested positive for Covid before the tournament began (they have both tested negative since) and so were unable to make the trip to the US. He spluttered to a swift conclusion and almost forgot to collect his runner’s up trophy.

“I was super close to being a grand slam champion,” he said later. “I was a few games away, maybe a few points away. For me what upset me the most is not the third set or something like that, it’s the fifth set. I had a lot of chances in the fifth set and didn’t use them.

“Yeah, I mean, I’m 23 years old. I don’t think it’s my last chance. I do believe that I will be a grand slam champion at some point.”

But the look on his face at the end of the match suggested that it will be a long time before he truly believes that. This was the biggest opportunity to win a major either man had had before – or is likely to have again for some while – and Zverev had been a fraction of an inch away from getting his hands on the trophy. And then his great friend snatched it away from him.

Maybe it would have been easier for both of them if Novak Djokovic had still been in New York on Sunday night.