When it was all done, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev did something they weren’t supposed to do.
In a U.S. Open impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, played without spectators in the ghost town that the Billie Jean National Tennis Center had become, Thiem and Zverev shook hands and embraced after a grueling four-hour championship match on Sunday. That was a coronavirus no-no, but oh so the right thing to do for the close friends and rivals.
Thiem had just won his first Grand Slam title by the slimmest of margins in a fifth-set tiebreaker. With both competitors at the edge of their physical and mental limits, it would be the 27-year-old Austrian who would prevail when the 23-year-old German sent a backhand wide on the 14th point. The final score: 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (6).
"We have a long-term friendship, long-term rivalry. I think that we were both tested negative maybe 14 times, something like that, this week," said Thiem about the embrace. "Well, we just wanted to share this moment."
And he shared the moment throughout the night with his team. On Monday morning he spoke with Newsday and The Associated Press, so happy that he had won, so amped up he couldn’t sleep, so drained that it was hard to think of what’s next even though the French Open will be on his agenda starting next week.
In a way the match was symbolic of all the grueling planning the United States Tennis Association did just to get this tournament played. All the dealing with governments local, state, federal and international on virus issues. It was like rallying from two sets and a break down.
And that’s exactly what Thiem did. Thiem is the first player to come from two sets down in the championship match since American Pancho Gonzales defeated countryman Fred Schroeder Jr., 16-18, 2-6, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, in 1949. It was also the first Open championship match to be decided with a fifth-set tiebreak. Both players served for the match in the fifth set and were broken.
When asked, Thiem said the match mirrored both the extraordinary conditions under which it was played, and his career.
"It was symbolic, it was like my whole career, many ups but also many downs," Thiem said. "Nothing really came easy and same with yesterday. I had to fight until the last point, it was a cruel match, a big drama in the fifth set but I finally made it and that’s it."
With the players and their entourages required to stay in the coronavirus bubble, this tournament was all about tennis.
"I think it was mentally very, very tough for all the players who went deep here," Thiem said. "Normally you have distractions in Manhattan, dinners, strolling in Central Park and through the streets. Here in the bubble just didn’t have any distractions. All the focus was on the tennis, of going deep in the tournament and maybe winning the tournament. That was not easy to handle, maybe it was for myself a little bit too much focus on the tennis, which was more harmful than it did good to me."
But he ultimately was good enough.
As for that final embrace: "I guess we didn't put anybody in danger," Thiem said. "So I think it was fine."