Getting off to a slow start against the best players in the world is almost always a deadly mistake.
According to the ATP Performance Zone, the top eight players this season after winning the first set were all in the Top 10 of the FedEx ATP Rankings. Combined, those eight men were 205-15 after taking the opener (93.2 winning percentage).
World's Top 10 Players After Winning The First Set (2020)
Player Record After Winning 1st Set Winning % Novak Djokovic 35-0 100% Andrey Rublev 35-1 97.2% Rafael Nadal 24-1 96% Stefanos Tsitsipas 24-2 92.3% Dominic Thiem 22-2 91.7% Daniil Medvedev 20-2 90.9% Diego Schwartzman 22-3 88% Alexander Zverev 23-4 85.2% Matteo Berrettini 9-2 81.8% Roger Federer 3-0 100% TOTAL 217-17 92.7%
Leading the way in this category in 2020 was World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who won all 35 matches in which he took the first set. Getting over that hump made a big difference for opponents, as the Serbian was only 6-5 when he did not win the opener.
Andrey Rublev enjoyed a breakthrough season in 2020, leading the ATP Tour with five titles. Part of the reason for his massive success was how well he did playing from ahead. The Russian was 35-1 when he won the first set. Glaringly, he was 6-9 after losing the opener. His only defeat after taking the first set came at the Rolex Paris Masters, where three-time major champion Stan Wawrinka beat him.
Rafael Nadal entered his Nitto ATP Finals semi-final against Daniil Medvedev on a 71-match winning streak after claiming the opener. The Spaniard was 24-0 on the season. But his one loss, which broke his long streak, came at an inopportune time.
Instead of advancing to the championship match and playing for his first title at the season finale, Nadal went home. Medvedev stunned the World No. 2 with a 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-3 victory, and he ultimately lifted the trophy.
Trust the math.
Traditional tennis mantra dictates second serves should be directed at the backhand return, either kicking up high with a topspin serve or jamming the returner with a slice to the body. The third option of serving to the opponent’s forehand return, which is typically viewed as being very brave or very foolish, is the antithesis of the first two.
Unless you trust the math.
An Infosys ATP Beyond The Numbers 2020 analysis of second-serve direction in the Deuce court versus right-handed opponents by the Top 10 identified second serves directed out wide to the opponent’s forehand return actually delivered the highest winning percentage. Roger Federer, ranked fifth, was omitted from this Top 10 analysis as he didn’t play any ATP Tour events, which is where this data is sourced, this year. Gael Monfils, No. 11 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, was added to the data set.
The 10 players served down the T the most, utilising a kick second serve up high to the returner’s backhand. But where did they win the most? Out wide to the forehand.
2020 Season: Top 10 Second Serves In The Deuce Court vs. Right-Handed Opponents
Second-Serve Direction Direction Percentage Winning Percentage Wide 25% 65% Body 23% 56% T 53% 58%
Monfils was one of only three players that served wide to the forehand as the primary location.
Primary Location = Wide To The Forehand Return
Gael Monfils = 48% (59/123)
Novak Djokovic = 44.0% (118/268)
Daniil Medvedev = 41.9% (95/227)
On the surface, serving to the returner’s forehand seems like a fatally flawed strategy - until you do the math. Eight of the 10 players enjoyed their highest winning percentage when serving wide to the forehand, with one scoring highest at the body and another winning the highest rate of points serving down the T.
The eight players who won the most out wide to the forehand return were:
1. Stefanos Tsitsipas = 75.0% (21/28)
2. Alexander Zverev = 66.7% (4/6)
T3. Dominic Thiem = 67.5% (27/40)
T3. Rafael Nadal = 67.5% (27/40)
5. Daniil Medvedev = 64.2% (61/95)
6. Gael Monfils = 62.7% (37/59)
7. Matteo Berrettini = 62.5% (10/16)
8. Diego Schwartzman = 60.6% (40.66)
There are two main advantages to serving wide to the right-hander’s forehand return in the Deuce court.
1: Element Of Surprise - In this data set, 75 per cent (1323/1754) of second serves were directed at the body and down the T. Mistakes flow when the returner is anticipating the serve going to their backhand and they have to quickly adjust to hit a forehand return on the other side of their body.
2: Over-Hitting -Forehand returns are a more powerful shot than backhand returns. When returners are surprised with the direction to the forehand, they instantly want to be on offence and swing big. The problem is that the wide serve is now stretching them off the court into a defensive posture. Return errors flow from playing offence when on defence.
A statistics table clearly shows the benefits of directing second serves wide to the forehand in the Deuce court. Without the math, we would never know just how good this gem of a strategy really is.
Continuing our review of the 2020 season, today we look at three of the top five upsets of the year at Grand Slam level. We'll review the top two tomorrow. Next week, we'll look at the best matches, comebacks and upsets at ATP Tour tournaments.
5. Ernests Gulbis d. Felix Auger-Aliassime, Australian Open, R1, 21 January 21 2020
Five years ago, Ernests Gulbis was a fixture in the Top 20. At the time, Felix Auger-Aliassime (FAA for short) was a 15-year-old earning his first points at Challenger and Futures events in places like Lima, Peru and Drummondville, Canada. But when they met this year in the first round of the Australian Open, their careers seemed to be heading in opposite directions.
Gulbis—one of the more colourful and quotable players in the game— came into the match ranked No. 256 and had to win three qualifying matches to enter the main draw. His last win in the main draw of a major came at Wimbledon in 2018, when he beat Alexander Zverev on his way to the fourth round.
Some of his recent tennis travels prior to the tournament included ATP Challenger Tour events in New Caledonia, Vancouver, and Los Cabos, where he won his last tour-level match six months before. Gulbis hadn’t won a main draw match at the Australian Open in six years coming into the event.
Felix, then No. 22 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, arrived Down Under resembling a shooting star, coming off a season in which his ranking rose from No. 106 to 17 before falling back a few places by season’s end.
FAA arrived in Melbourne coming off a solid semi-final appearance at the Adelaide International the week before, when he fell to eventual champion Andrey Rublev 6-4 in the third set. He also beat Gulbis—once a teen sensation himself back in 2008, when he made it to the quarter-finals at Roland Garros at 19— in Stuttgart several months prior in their only career match.
But no-one’s ever won a tennis match by submitting their resume to the chair umpire, and the veteran carried his momentum from the qualies right into 1573 Arena, where the Latvian veteran took down the young Canadian 7-5, 4-6, 7-6(4), 6-4 in three hours, 35 minutes. FAA made 44 unforced errors, including seven double faults and wily Gulbis made effective use of his fine drop shot and unorthodox forehand.
Gulbis was emotional after the win, discussing his long road back to relevancy.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “It’s not easy to come back, it’s not easy to play Challengers, but these moments are really worth it.”
Gulbis won his next match against Aljaz Bedene, then fell in the third round to Gael Monfils.
4. Cameron Norrie d. Diego Schwartzman, US Open, R1, 1 September 2020
Like all tennis coaches, Juan Ignacio Chela will never tell the press about the game plans he devises for his charge, Diego Schwartzman. But rest assured that prior to Diego’s first-round match against Cameron Norrie, Chela didn’t draw up a game plan for the tournament’s ninth seed that included winning only 53% of his first-serve points, giving up 31 break points and hitting 50 more unforced errors (81) than winners (31).
Unfortunately for Schwartzman, he did all those things, and yet, in a testament to his fortitude, still managed to stay on court for a minute shy of four hours before losing what was one of the strangest and most intriguing upsets of the year.
Norrie, ranked No. 76 at the time, has an extensive passport collection thanks to his international upbringing: He was born in South Africa to a Scottish father and Welsh mother, but played for New Zealand until switching to Great Britain at age 16.
The men split their two prior encounters, with both going the distance, but it looked like a mismatch early on as the Argentine, who is nicknamed “El Pelque” (shorty), took the first two sets 6-3, 6-4.
“I was making way too many errors,” Norrie would comment after the match. “He'd done almost nothing to be two sets up."
Norrie started playing more aggressively in the third set, approaching the net with regularity and generating break points as fast as lottery machines spit out losing numbers, though he converted just 11 of his 31 chances. In fact, fans who hate Big Man tennis with dominating servers were in heaven, as the players combined for a tournament record 58 break points.
Schwartzman was rightfully in a foul mood late in the match and appeared to be struggling physically in the fifth set. Nevertheless, he dug deep, as he always does, and streaked out to a 5-3 lead in the decider, only to have the Brit save one match point and then another at 5-4. A clearly hobbled Schwartzman saved two match points of his own, but lost the last four games, giving Norrie an improbable 3-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 7-5 win he’ll never forget.
“The tennis and the level wasn't that great but I had a good attitude throughout and I was happy with that," Norrie said after the match. "I'm lucky to get through that... it was a tough one…Fifty-eight [break points] is a lot.”
Norrie beat another Argentine, Federico Coria, in the next round and then was ushered out of New York by Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in the third round. It was his best result at a major, and it’ll probably be the only match he’ll ever play with 58 break points.
3. Vasek Pospisil d. Milos Raonic, US Open, R2, 3 September 2020
Perhaps it shouldn’t be considered an upset any time a man whose motto is “Anything is Pospisil” wins a match, but we believe the Canadian belongs here by virtue of a pair of stunning upsets he pulled off at the US Open against his countryman Milos Raonic and the Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut.
Pospisil’s 2020 breakout came at the US Open, but for Canadians, it felt like the Canadian Open too. After all, it was the first time four Canadian men made the second round of a Grand Slam event since five players advanced out of the first round of the 1959 US Championships. Pospisil’s opponent was a very familiar face. He and Raonic, born just six months apart but on opposite sides of the country—Pospisil is from Vancouver, Raonic from Ontario—have been playing each other since their junior days.
"I think (Vasek) won pretty much of all them through our junior career, then I won pretty much all of them except the last one through our professional careers," Raonic said before the match.
In fact, Pospisil beat Raonic at three ITF Futures tournaments before Raonic beat Pospisil at an ATP Challenger Tour event. At the tour level, Raonic won two of their three meetings.
World No. 94 Pospisil was enjoying a bit of a resurgence since returning from surgery for a herniated disc in 2019. He helped Canada reach the 2019 Davis Cup final and reached his second career final in February in Montpellier, France. But Milos had just reached the final of the Western & Southern Open, where he lost to Novak Djokovic, and entered the match as the clear favourite.
The result that appeared most pospisil after Raonic blitzed him 7/1 in the first set tie-break was a straight-sets win for Milos, the No. 25 seed. Raonic’s serve can be like an extremely difficult language to learn—some will never do it, others might be able to get by perhaps, but it takes time.
It took Pospisil a good set to reacquaint himself with the hell that is his old friend’s serve, but once he did so, he began to cruise, serving a lot like his old friend, and painting lines with forehand winners. On the strength of 20 aces and 40 winners, he took the next three sets and the match, 6-3 7-6(4), 6-3.
“Playing a Canadian is always tricky, especially someone like Milos who I've know for my whole tennis career," said Pospisil, who saved all five break points he faced in the match.
It was a great win for the comeback kid from Vancouver, but he wasn’t done yet. In the next round, he stunned the tournament’s red-hot No. 8 seed, Bautista Agut, 7-5, 2-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 in a three hour, 40 minute marathon of contrasting styles, the Canadian attacker defeating the Spanish defender. Pospisil seemed to find another level in the match, mashing 70 winners en route to a berth in the tournament’s fourth round for the first time where Alex de Minaur brought his Cinderella run to a screeching halt.
“Any time you can get wins like this against top players of the sport is huge,” said Pospisil after beating Bautista Agut. “To do it on a big stage like this and make the fourth round of a Grand Slam is a really big deal.”
It's the Launchpad of Legends... ATPTour.com reflects on the moment that launched Juan Martin del Potro's career, on the 15th anniversary of his first ATP Challenger Tour title in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Every player has had their start here. Regardless of talent and potential, all players have come through the ATP Challenger Tour as they begin their climb to the upper echelons of the game. However, not all paths to the top are created equal.
Del Potro's rise was as rapid as they come. We all know the Argentine as one of the biggest hitters on tour, throwing down mammoth serves and launching forehand bombs from all corners of the court. While his aggressive baseline game has seen him ascend to No. 3 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, this shotmaking arsenal was built from an early age.
At 16, Del Potro was already striking fear in his opponents. As he embarked on his professional career, the Argentine needed just three tournaments to reach his first ATP Challenger Tour final, in July 2005. And by the end of the year he was lifting his first trophy.
It was a historic maiden title for Del Potro on the clay of Montevideo, Uruguay. The Tandil native was only 17 years and one month when he seized his first piece of silverware. Fifteen years later, he remains the youngest winner from South America in Challenger history and 14th-youngest overall.
"I remember that it was my first Challenger title," Del Potro said. "It was in Uruguay in 2005. After winning here, I really felt like I was a professional tennis player for the first time. I started believing in my game and it showed the people working with me how good I can be in the future. I think I made a pretty good career after winning this title."
His week in Montevideo marked Del Potro's first tournament as a Top 200 player and it would not be long before he took the next step in his young career. As the Argentine continued to develop his craft and hone his talents, he hit one milestone after another. Just one year later, Del Potro would enter the Top 100 for the first time.
It was in 2006 that Del Potro graduated from the ATP Challenger Tour with aplomb. In April, he won his second title in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and in August he added a third in Segovia, Spain. His victory in Segovia was his first professional title on hard courts and moved him into elite company. Del Potro is one of just five players to win three titles before their 18th birthday, along with Novak Djokovic, Richard Gasquet, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Carlos Alcaraz.
From that unforgettable day in Montevideo to the culmination of his Challenger career, shortly after triumphing in Segovia, it proved to be a critical 12 months in Del Potro's development. Not only did he continue to adapt as he grew physically, but the Argentine developed a dogged mentality that has stayed with him throughout his career.
Del Potro with the trophy in Segovia 2006
The steady progression would translate to the ATP Tour. As the calendar flipped to 2007, Del Potro would secure his first Top 10 win (d. Robredo) in Madrid, and in 2008 he entered the winners' circle with a maiden tour-level crown in Stuttgart. And one year later, he celebrated the crowning achievement of his career at the US Open.
"It's the step before the ATP Tour and the Challengers are really important to learn and grow," Del Potro added. "They are magnificent tournaments and they are all very important."
The Comeback Player of the Year award in the 2020 ATP Awards goes to the player who has overcome injury to re-establish himself as one of the top players on Tour. This year's nominees are Kevin Anderson, Andrey Kuznetsov, Vasek Pospisil and Milos Raonic. The winner, as selected by the players, will be announced later this month.
In 2020 (Difference)
Kevin Anderson No. 4 No. 147 No.81 (+66) Andrey Kuznetsov No. 39 Unranked No. 509 (+509) Vasek Pospisil No. 25 No. 148 No. 61 (+87) Milos Raonic No. 3 No. 37 No. 14 (+23)
The South African player started the 2019 season with a World No. 6 FedEx ATP Ranking, but plummeted to No. 147 after struggling elbow and knee injuries. Anderson was sidelined again in 2020 after undergoing knee surgery in February, and has made his way back to the ATP Top 100 after reaching semi-finals in Vienna and the third round at Roland Garros.
The 34-year-old finished the year ranked No. 81. He played eight tournaments since the ATP Tour’s resumption, with the goal of playing a complete schedule in 2021.
“It’s an ongoing project given where I’m at, my age and everything, but I feel like my motivation and what I’m trying to still do in this sport, there’s still a lot that I want to accomplish,” Anderson told press ahead of the Rolex Paris Masters. “I need my knee to give me that opportunity for the next several years, so that’s how we go along each week...
“I’ve set big goals for myself. It’s a process to get there, but my motivation is definitely as high as it’s ever been.”
The 29-year-old Russian’s last full competitive season was in 2017, before a lifelong hip injury forced him to walk away from the game. During his time away, the former World No. 39 did everything from dabbling in coaching - he worked with countryman Evgeny Donskoy in 2019 - to doing commentary for Eurosport, as well as getting married and welcoming a son with wife Darya. But he still had more tennis left, and Kuznetsov slowly worked his way back to fitness before embarking on his comeback in 2020 after the ATP Tour’s resumption.
He made a big statement at the US Open, reaching the second round in just his second tournament back, where he became the first unranked player to win a Grand Slam match since Nicolas Kiefer at 2007 Wimbledon. Rising as high as No. 509 in the FedEx ATP Rankings as a result, Kuznetsov is looking forward to settling back into the rhythm of the Tour.
“I was pretty sure I would come back. I wasn’t sure how long it would take. I thought it might take even longer than three years, that maybe it would take five years,” Kuznetsov told ATPTour.com ahead of the US Open. “I was not sure if after five years I would have motivation to come back because so much time would have passed. Somewhere inside I was hoping and I believed I would be able to come back and it was a question of time.”
Pospisil was sidelined during the first half of 2019 and ended the year as World No. 149 after undergoing back surgery to repair a herniated disk. But by the end of the season, the Canadian was already showing flashes of his vintage form, and he kept the momentum going in 2020 as he surged back into the Top 100.
Pospisil reached two ATP Tour finals in Sofia and Montpellier, and made a statement run to the fourth round of the US Open, defeating back-to-back Top 20 players - Roberto Bautista Agut (11) and countryman Milos Raonic (18) - along the way. It was the 30-year-old’s best Grand Slam result since his 2015 run to Wimbledon quarter-finals.
“I feel like I’m getting back in the right direction,” Pospisil told ATPTour.com in Montpellier. “I haven’t been able to go consecutive weeks and months like this for a very long time. I didn’t realise it, but I feel like I’m on the right track physically.”
“I am not putting pressure on myself over ranking, but I would ultimately like to get back to the Top 30 and a career-high ranking,” he added. “If I didn’t think I could do that, I don’t think I’d still be playing. I am trying not to put too much pressure on myself, but I’m pretty ambitious.”
Former Wimbledon finalist Raonic was sidelined for a large portion of the 2019 season due to injury, missing Roland Garros and the US Open in a career-long struggle to stay healthy. But he’s bounced back higher in 2020, starting the year with a run to the quarter-finals at the Australian Open.
The Canadian also made his mark at the ATP Masters 1000 level, reaching the final in Cincinnati and semi-finals in Paris. Raonic ended the year inside the Top 20 for the seventh time in his career as a result.
“I wish things were different but I have to work my way back up,” Raonic said after Melbourne. “I feel like my tennis is there but I have to stay healthy and give myself a chance to compete week in and week out… I think I can find a level above what I had before.”
Rafael Nadal received the Community of Madrid's highest honour, the Grand Cross of the Order of Dos de Mayo, on Thursday. At an event held at the Real Casa de Correos (headquarters of the regional government), the Mallorcan was bestowed with the award that recognises people and institutions whose exemplary behaviour has stood out in their service to the citizenry.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion was emotional at the recognition he received in the Spanish capital. In a season that was defined by the far-reaching COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused 45,000 deaths in Spain, Nadal wanted to send a message of affection in support of the people.
“First of all, I would like to remember the victims of this terrible pandemic, which we are going through, and all their families. I think it affects us all in one way or another, but above all those that have lost loved ones,” Nadal highlighted in his speech. “Thank you to all the health workers, particularly in Madrid, a community that was severely affected in the first wave. And also thank you to the forces and State security organisations. I’m convinced that Spain will do what it has always been able to do; to come through tough and difficult circumstances. This time will be no exception.”
The Spaniard played a very active role in charity work during the season. Together with basketball player Pau Gasol, he launched the #NuestraMejorVictoria campaign (“Our Best Victory”) to encourage donations from Spanish sport for the fight against COVID-19. In an initiative that formed part of the #CruzRojaResponde project (“Red Cross Responds”), over 14 million euros were raised to help citizens in need amid the emergency health crisis.
“Thank you for this recognition, it is a true honour,” Nadal said. “I’d like to thank and share this distinction with the citizens of the Community of Madrid, a place that feels very close to my heart and where I always receive special affection. I’ve enjoyed unforgettable moments, both personal and professional. We all owe a lot to this community, because it has always been there for us.
“I hope that what we are going through now will soon be but a memory and we can go back to sharing and enjoying the things that make us happy soon. Hopefully this will be over as soon as possible. You’ve all made this an unforgettable day for me.”
Regional president Isabel Díaz Ayuso presented the World No. 2 with the medal and she had a few words of recognition on a very special day.
“We bestow you with this highest of honours in recognition of your colossal sporting achievements, but also your extraordinary virtues as a person,” said Díaz Ayuso. “You are the best Spanish sportsman of all time, but also a man of great values; determination, perseverance, discipline, sacrifice, respect for the opponent and humility. You have never lost your humanity. You are capable of uniting all Spaniards around you, millions of them have celebrated and shed tears with you under the Spanish flag.
“Thank you for associating us with pride and talent, thanks to you we know that we are a great nation capable of producing extraordinary men and women. Thank you Rafa. In Madrid and in the rest of Spain, we love you.”
Continuing our review of the 2020 season, today we look at the top two Grand Slam comebacks of the year. Next week, we'll look at the best matches, comebacks and upsets at ATP Tour tournaments.
2. Roger Federer d. Tennys Sandgren, Australian Open, QF, January 28 2020
Harry Houdini was perhaps the best-known magician of all time. His signature trick was to escape what he called a water torture cell, where he was submerged in a tank of water upside down, his ankles locked in shackles. Roger Federer, tennis’ great artist and magician, has made some great escapes of his own over the years, perhaps none better than when he beat Tennys Sandgren at the Australian Open in January, saving seven match points in a delightfully entertaining and unpredictable match.
On paper, Federer was a big favourite to beat Sandgren, then ranked No. 100. But Federer was troubled by nagging groin and knee injuries and he struggled at times in five and four set wins over John Millman and Marton Fucsovics prior to his quarter-final matchup with Sandgren, who is named after his Swedish great-great grandfather. By contrast, Sandgren was coming off upset wins over Matteo Berrettini, Sam Querrey, and Fabio Fognini. And he had the best run of his life at the same event, reaching the quarter-finals in 2018, so it wasn’t his first big rodeo Down Under.
Federer looked like the man to beat early on, as he took the first set 6-3 in just over 30 minutes. But Roger’s game, particularly his backhand, seemed to desert him in the second and third sets, as he sprayed 30 unforced errors to fall behind two sets to one. His frustration boiled over, and at one point, he was given a code violation for an audible obscenity—a rarity for him that he later said was “a bit tough”. “It’s not like I’m known to throw around words,” he said after the match.
The raucous, pro-Federer crowd on Rod Laver Arena tried to will Federer back into the match, but it seemed like a lost cause when Sandgren had three match points as the Swiss served at 4-5, 0-40 in the fourth set. But the American, who wore what one writer called a “Cobra Kai” style kit with a sleeveless shirt and green headband, squandered all three chances with errant forehands.
But the muscular American regrouped in the fourth set tie-break, racing out to a 6/3 advantage with a barrage of his trademark powerful serves and forehands. Once again though, the magician from Münchenstein showed why he’s one of the sport’s all-time greats. After saving two more match points, he gave the crowd what David Foster Wallace called a “Federer moment” at 5/6 down, flicking a deft backhand pass down the line and then boldly following it into the net where he casually smacked a swinging forehand volley into the open court for a winner as though it was as easy as taking some Swiss chocolates from a baby.
Federer saved his seventh match point at 6/7 down and then clinched the tie-break 10/8 as Sandgren overcooked an overhead smash to send the match into a fifth set, which Federer dominated to secure the improbable 6-3 2-6 2-6 7-6(8) 6-3 win.
"I feel a bit bad in a way because I didn't feel like he did anything really wrong," Federer said afterwards. "It's just luck at some point. I've been on the other side, as well. These ones just sting, and they hurt. But I could have blinked at the wrong time and shanked (a shot). That would have been it."
Federer said that he tends to keep the faith until the last ball is struck. “I only believe it once it's over, I shake the hand of the opponent, that it's over, that it's fine,” he said.
1. Dominic Thiem d. Alexander Zverev, US Open, Final, September 13 2020
It was just one match, and here it claims just one title: best comeback of the year in a Grand Slam tournament. But Dominic Thiem’s win over Alexander Zverev in the final of the US Open this year was a match for the ages, one that was much more than just a great comeback. It was a war. It was a test. It was a chess match. At times, it was a comedy, sometimes even a bit of a horror show. It was a struggle to overcome nerves and physical limitations. It was a match you’ll tell your grandkids about.
Above all else, it was high drama, filled with scenes of agony, ecstasy, tears, joy, fear and every other human emotion imaginable. After living through this theatre with these men across four hours and one minute, it felt like watching your twin sons play—no one was sure who to root for and even the fans of one man hated to see the other lose.
Coming into the match, Thiem fans had every reason to believe their man would become the first new major champion in six years. The Austrian dropped just one set in six matches leading up to the final, playing a total of 19 sets, compared to 24 sets for Zverev, who had to come from two sets down to beat Pablo Carreno Busta in the semi-finals. But it was the German who looked sharper early in the match, taking the first two sets as Thiem looked out of sorts.
Thiem showed signs of life late in the second set though, forcing Zverev to play five set points before he finally seized the two-set advantage. Early in the third set, the momentum shifted toward the Austrian when Zverev missed a routine volley on a break point. After Thiem won the third and fourth sets, it looked like gute nachtfor Zverev.
Boris Becker once said, “the fifth set isn’t about tennis, it’s about nerves,” and his adage was entirely appropriate for this match, as both players struggled to overcome cramps and nerves. Zverev’s cramps limited his cannon serve—which at times dropped to around 70 mph— but, in a match full of surprises, he regained momentum against all the odds in the fifth set, as he served for the match at 5-3. But the German couldn’t close the sale and the match concluded, appropriately enough, in a tie-break.
At 6/6, Thiem blasted two passing shots right at Zverev, then passed him with a blistering forehand on the third try. A point later, the German sailed a backhand wide and Thiem finally had his first major in a gritty 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(6) win. The players embraced, with Thiem burying his head in his younger and taller rival’s shoulder as if he was hugging a loved one. No one could tell where the sweat ended and the tears began.
“We both deserved it,” Thiem said after the match. “I achieved a life goal and a dream I had for many, many years.”
Zverev fought back tears during his trophy presentation speech. “It’s just tough, you know,” he said. “I wish one day that I can bring the trophy home.”
Thiem’s former coach, Gunther Bresnik, told The New York Times after the match that it was one of the worst finals he ever saw in his life. The level of play did indeed dip at times, as the players battled fatigue, cramps and nerves, but Bresnik seems to have missed the beauty of the match. It was perhaps the most human and relatable final in US Open history, one that anyone who’s ever picked up a racquet couldn’t take their eyes off of for a moment and will never forget.