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Dominic Thiem survives epic battle to win U.S. Open over Alexander Zverev in fifth-set tiebreaker

Dominic Thiem of Austria celebrates with the championship

Dominic Thiem of Austria celebrates with the championship trophy after winning in a tie-breaker during his Men's Singles final match against Alexander Zverev of Germany on Day Fourteen of the 2020 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 13, 2020. Credit: Getty Images/Al Bello

In a U. S. Open like no other, in an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, after four hours and five sets, at the end of an eerie two weeks at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Dominic Thiem was the last man standing.

When Alexander Zverev knocked a backhand wide on the 14th point of the fifth set tiebreak, Thiem had won the U.S. Open, his first Grand Slam title, 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (6). He had done so during a tournament heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, played without spectators and the boundless energy they bring, played within a coronavirus bubble, but played nonetheless.

Thiem had lost his first three Grand Slam finals, including to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open in January. After dropping the first two sets on Sunday, he found the will and strength to just edge his close friend Zverev and gain his first major championship.

Both players, exhausted and hurting at the very end, praised the USTA for managing to stage this Open during the pandemic and overcoming enormous obstacle.

"To the USTA and all the people that made it happen congratulations," Thiem said. "Thanks for making us all safe."

"Who would have thought this whole event would had been possible with all that’s going on," Zverev said. "Thanks to U.S. Open for making it happen."

In the first set, it appeared that Thiem had missed his starting time. His first serve wasn’t penetrating and his second serve was weak. And his groundstrokes were tentative and imprecise. By contrast Zverev was serving well from the start, winning several short rally points while looking confident coming to net, winning seven of eight points in close.

The second set didn’t look any brighter when Thiem lost two of his serves to go down and Zverev was holding to lead 5-1. Then things got interesting.

Thiem showed his first sign of real fight when he defended three sets points on his serve in the seventh game. Zverev had a fourth set point serving in the eighth game and missed a pretty easy volley. Thiem finally got his first break point and converted it. Though Zverev eventually served it out for a two sets to love lead, but at least Thiem had made a statement.

There were thoughts that Thiem might have messed up when he lost his serve in the third game of the third set. But Zverev was not looking at all as confident as he did to start the match. Thiem was digging in and managed a break in the fourth game. He broke him again in the 10th game to take the set. The championship was on.

While both players cruised the opening games of the fourth set, it was Thiem that looked far more dangerous. Zverev fought off two break points in the sixth game. But in the eighth game on the second deuce point Zverev double faulted and then made a forehand error. Thiem, up 5-3, served out the set. Now the title came down to the fifth.

In the first game, down 15-40, Zverev hit a forehand that was called wide. He challenged, but in doing so he already was headed for the other side of the net. The ball was out, the game was Thiem’s, and it seemed all the momentum as well.

Then Thiem donated the next game with a double fault and it was 1-1. Both players were on a tightrope, waiting for the other to fall off. In the eighth game it was Thiem. Zverev was playing more aggressively after spending the previous two sets playing tentatively until a big forehand got him a break and the chance to serve for the match in the ninth game.

And wouldn’t you know, Zverev handed the break right back, missing a volley he should have put away easily. After breaking Zverev in the 11th game, Thiem served for the title. And . . . he was broken.

So it was a tiebreak for the championship. After Thiem served for the title at 6-4, Zverev fought back to tie. But two points later, Thiem finally could say he is a Grand Slam champion.

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