Naomi Osaka makes political and tennis statements at US Open 2020

Before every US Open match this year, Naomi Osaka honoured the lives of seven Black Americans killed by police by wearing a face mask with one of the victim’s names on it.

Immensely popular around the world, the Japanese-Haitian Naomi Osaka, who lives in California, is the highest-paid female athlete of all time.   -  AP

What motivates world-class tennis players? Traditionally, the love of competition, mastering a multifaceted sport, fame and fortune, and the roar of the crowd. You can now add another powerful motivator: gaining a platform to fight for social, political and racial justice.

Before every US Open match this year, Naomi Osaka honoured the lives of seven Black Americans killed by police by wearing a face mask with one of the victim’s names on it. “I want people to be more aware. It’s definitely a motivating factor,” she said after overcoming Jennifer Brady in the semifinals.

Backing up those words with action, Osaka joined the National Basketball Association, the Women's National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the National Hockey League in the US, which postponed games, to protest the August 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake — wounded seven times in the back — by not playing her scheduled semifinal at the Western & Southern Open. Her bold decision prompted the tournament to cancel play that day.

As the once-shy, 22-year-old Japanese-Haitian found her political voice, she also recently regained the brilliant form that brought her back-to-back major titles at the 2018 US Open and 2019 Australian Open. With a strong physique and explosive game that resembled Serena’s, Osaka was immediately tabbed as The Next Great Player, one who could amass double-digit Grand Slam titles and dominate the next decade.

“I wanted more people to show more names,” Naomi Osaka said in her victory speech. Before every US Open match this year, the 22-year-old honoured the lives of seven Black Americans killed by police by wearing a face mask with one of the victim’s names on it.   -  Reuters

 

But burdened by great expectations, the sensitive, self-deprecating Osaka faltered badly, failing to gain the quarters at the next four majors. For her, the five-month suspension of the pro tour due to the pandemic proved to be a blessing. “I feel like honestly the entire 2019, after I won Australia, I put too much pressure on myself,” Osaka confided. “I wasn’t enjoying it... I just thought to myself, I’m going to take the quarantine to mentally evaluate what I want to do when I come back. And for me, when you walk out onto (Arthur) Ashe (Stadium), there’s a quote from Billie Jean King that says, ‘Pressure is a privilege,’ and for me, I feel like it’s very true.”

Serena felt even more pressure. Having turned 39 on September 26, she knows her days as an elite player are numbered. And her unrelenting quest to equal Margaret Court’s hallowed record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles seems increasingly difficult, if not quixotic. Though Serena remarkably reached four major finals after giving birth to a daughter in September 2017, she lost them all decisively, being far too nervous to perform like the incomparable Serena of yesteryear.

Two factors, though, gave hope to Serena and other leading players to capture the US Open. First, unprecedented parity saw 11 women capture the previous 13 majors. Second, a stunning six of the top-eight ranked players — including No. 1-ranked Ashleigh Barty and Wimbledon champion Simona Halep — decided not to risk their health by travelling to New York and competing, despite the extraordinary steps taken by the United States Tennis Association (USTA) to make the tournament safe with a bio-secure bubble.

Weirdly quiet atmosphere

With no fans in the stands, pundits speculated whether and how this weirdly quiet atmosphere would affect players, especially during match crises. After 16-year-old prodigy Coco Gauff, an American crowd favourite, lost 6-3, 5-7, 6-4 to canny veteran Anastasija Sevastova, ESPN analyst Chris Evert said, “I think Coco would have won that match if 22,000 fans were rooting for her. They would have lifted her.” Other experts had a different take. “It’s a real eerier feeling, but I think the players will get used to it pretty quickly,” said ESPN analyst Darren Cahill. Yet another perspective came from 1980s superstar John McEnroe, who offered, “I don’t know if Jimmy (Connors, his hyper-competitive archrival) could have played in front of no crowd.”

There were plenty of “What if?” scenarios about partisan spectators sparking deflated players, or, conversely, heaping unbearable pressure on other players. Would raucous Flushing Meadows fans have buoyed late-blooming Brady, whose wicked topspin forehand and powerful serve propelled her to her first major semifinal?

READ | Osaka climbs to No.3, Azarenka returns to top-15 in WTA rankings

Though the shy, 25-year-old American didn’t seem the least bit nervous on the big stage against heavily favoured Osaka, before the match Evert speculated, “I think it will be easier for Brady without the crowd.” We’ll never know if the roar of the crowd would have changed the result, a riveting 7-6, 3-6, 6-3 Osaka victory. But, for sustained shot-making excellence, this was the highest-calibre match of the tournament and the perfect way to showcase the 50th anniversary of the women’s pro tour. “Probably the best women’s match I’ve seen,” raved Cahill.

The other semifinal provided even more food for thought about the importance of crowd support. Though Serena is undoubtedly the most polarising woman in tennis history and her most tumultuous misbehavior had come at Flushing Meadows, fans in overwhelming numbers still cheered wildly for her. But make no mistake: this was a symbiotic relationship made in tennis heaven. No more intense competitor ever strode the courts — not Maureen Connolly, Billie Jean King, Steffi Graf or even Monica Seles. Fist pumps, “Come on!” yells, growls and scowls at opponents, visceral grunts and stentorian screams bordering on illegal distractions intimidated foes and engaged fans.

Turning 39 on September 26, Serena Williams knows her days as an elite player are numbered. And her unrelenting quest to equal Margaret Court’s hallowed record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles seems increasingly difficult, if not quixotic.   -  PTI

 

In resurgent Victoria Azarenka, the 2012-13 Australian champion, Serena faced another fiercely competitive opponent she had edged in memorably taut, three-set US Open finals those same years. This US Open was filled with exciting match comebacks, and the unseeded 31-year-old from Belarus would produce not only that, but also the most stunning career comeback. After not winning a Tour match in nearly a year, she had now reeled off 11 straight!

Azarenka’s 2011-13 halcyon era was followed by injuries, brutal first-round draws and losses, and an acrimonious child custody battle. The resulting malaise derailed her career. She rebounded somewhat in 2016 to win tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami only to plummet again to her nadir at the 2019 Australian Open. After a first-round loss there to No. 79 Laura Siegemund, a tearful Azarenka told the media, “Right now it’s a harder struggle for me. It’s okay. I don’t think I failed. Failing is when you give up... I’ve been through a lot of things in my life, and sometimes I wonder why I go through them, but I think they’re going to make me stronger.”

By the end of 2019, the down and almost out former No. 1 contemplated retirement. “I was pretty ready to stop,” Azarenka recently recalled. “I didn’t touch a racket for about five months, before the pandemic.” In early 2020, though, the custody dispute was resolved, and Vika, her nickname, became relaxed and much happier. “From last year’s November through to January, I can write three books of what has happened to me,” she said.

New and recharged Azarenka

When she returned to the pro tour in August, after a first-round loss to Venus Williams at Lexington, Kentucky, the new and recharged Azarenka was almost unstoppable. She captured the Western & Southern Open (with a walkover from the injured Osaka in the final), and then raced to the US Open semis. There Azarenka notched impressive wins over No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka, the rapidly improving No. 20 Karolina Muchova and No. 16 Elise Mertens. This set up an eagerly anticipated showdown between Vika and her old rival Serena.

The consensus GOAT hadn’t been performing like one, though. Since Serena’s return after the tour shutdown, she had played five matches, all three setters, losing to No. 116 Rogers and No. 21 Maria Sakkari. But Serena picked up momentum at the US Open with solid three-set wins over 2017 champion Sloane Stephens, the versatile Sakkari and Tsvetana Pironkova. In her first tournament after the birth of her child three years ago, Pironkova amazingly upset No. 10 Garbiñe Muguruza and No. 18 Donna Vekic to make the quarterfinals.

Victoria Azarenka’s 2011-13 halcyon era was followed by injuries, brutal first-round draws and losses, and an acrimonious child custody battle. The resulting malaise derailed her career.   -  AFP

 

Serena was rated the slight favourite in the Battle of the Moms. She led 18-4 in their rivalry and was a perfect 10-0 at majors. Even so, Azarenka returned Serena’s booming serve better than anyone over the years, and, as Evert said, “She has no fear when she plays Serena.”

Still, playing in her first major semifinal since 2013 unnerved Azarenka. In the opening game, she double faulted twice and lost her serve. After just 14 minutes, she trailed 4-0. Serena broke serve again with a forehand winner to take the first set, 6-1. Paradoxically, the horrendous start seemed to fire up Azarenka. “You have to love the positive body language by Azarenka,” noted ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernáandez. “She looks like a boxer now, jumping around.”

Sure enough, the lean, 6’ blonde, smartly returning serve from way behind the baseline, broke the greatest server of all time twice to grab the second set 6-3. Azarenka’s dazzling stats: 12 winners and only one unforced error.

The Belarusian matched the American’s intensity with fist pumps when she won pivotal points. On changeovers, Azarenka closed her eyes to meditate, a mental routine reminiscent of Arthur Ashe during his famous 1975 Wimbledon triumph over Connors. Keeping the pressure on with accurate, deep ground strokes, she secured the only service break she needed in the second game of the deciding set when Serena’s crosscourt forehand landed barely wide of the sideline. Ironically, Azarenka confidently closed out the 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 match the way Serena often does — with two big serves, one at 109 mph inducing a return error and another clipping the line for an ace.

Serena, often a sore loser in the past, looked at the bright side of her defeat, contrasting it with her final-round debacles in 2018-19. “Maybe, I took a little too much off the gas pedal at some point,” she said. “I mean, it’s obviously disappointing. At the same time, you know, I did what I could today. I feel like other times I’ve been close and I could have done better. Today I felt like I gave a lot.”

The big questions

In the final against 22-year-old Osaka, Azarenka faced an opponent with an aggressive style strikingly similar to Serena’s. The stats said it all: Osaka ranked No. 2 in the 128-woman field by winning 93 percent of her service games, 65 of 70, while Azarenka ranked No. 2 by winning 55 percent of her return games, 31 of 56. ESPN analyst Rennae Stubbs posed the apt question: “How well can Azarenka return Osaka’s serve?”

The other questions were: How well would Azarenka return Osaka’s explosive forehand? How would Osaka’s backhand — a minus 20 on errors, her only stroke with a minus stat — hold up? Would Azarenka, who said, “I have to dictate with my game,” be able to do that against Osaka’s greater firepower? Would Azarenka’s suspect second serve falter on big points? And, crucially, who would handle the pressure better, as they both bid for a third Grand Slam title?

READ | Djokovic says he learned a 'big lesson' from US Open default

The answer to the last question came soon enough. Even though Azarenka hadn’t played a major final in seven years, she looked much calmer than she did against Serena. Conversely, a jittery Osaka made three forehand errors and a double fault to give away the opening game. A confident Vika controlled the center of the court from close to the baseline and moved Osaka around while handling Osaka’s renowned power with adept defence. Azarenka grabbed two more service breaks, the last coming on set point with a backhand down-the-line winner.

The stunning first set went 6-1 to the underdog. Historical precedent now favoured Azarenka because the winner of the first set had won the previous 25 US Open finals. On the other hand, Osaka could take comfort from the fact she had won her last 11 three-set matches at majors.

When Azarenka streaked to a 2-0, 30-15 lead in the second set with a dazzling backhand drop that the fooled Osaka didn’t run for, Fernandez said, “She’s in the zone at the moment. We’ll see if she can keep it up.”

The turning point

Azarenka couldn’t stay “in the zone” in the game that turned out to be the turning point of the match. Making a tactical mistake, she started hitting cautiously when leading 40-30, just a point away from taking a 3-0 lead. Osaka pounced with a booming forehand that forced an error from Azarenka, and the 5’11” Japanese-Haitian broke two points later when Azarenka erred on a forehand. Afterward, Osaka said, “I thought it would be embarrassing to lose in an hour, so I had to change my attitude. In the first set, I just was so nervous. I was too much in my own head. I just didn’t want to lose 6-1, 6-0.”

Now Osaka had the momentum. Cheered by her boyfriend Cordae, a rapper, she ramped up her intensity. While Osaka waited to return serve, she jumped up and down, tapped her thighs repeatedly and clenched her fist. Now she was dictating most of the points, and Azarenka was hitting shorter and shorter. Osaka broke serve two more times, the last coming on a forehand winner to take the set 6-3.

The Belarusian blinked first in the deciding set. A nervous, 71-mph serve plopped into the middle of the net to give Osaka two break points at 1-2, 15-40. Osaka converted for 3-1 and then staved off three break points to surge ahead 4-1. Ever the fighter, Azarenka fought off four break points in a must-hold game for 4-2.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” Vika had said after beating Serena, and she used those fighting words to inspire a mini-comeback. She broke back for 4-3. But Osaka overpowered her to break right back for 5-3 and then routinely held serve. Game, set, championship, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, for Osaka.

This title, which required four three-set victories, made Osaka a perfect 3-0 in Grand Slam finals. To celebrate — something she couldn’t do in the aftermath of the 2018 US Open final, which Serena spoiled with her histrionics — a smiling Osaka gently laid down on her back for 20 seconds and gazed contentedly at the sky. “I was thinking about all the times I’ve watched the great players sort of collapse onto the ground and look up into the sky,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to see what they saw.”

William Hill bookmakers’s pre-US Open odds had Pablo Carreño Busta, an unheralded Spaniard who benefited when Novak Djokovic was defaulted in their match, at 150-1.   -  PTI

 

One of the happiest losing finalists in recent history, Azarenka also smiled during her emotional speech. “It’s been a long road getting here, but this was fun,” she told the 200 or so attendees, mostly coaches, trainers and USTA staffers.

In her victory speech, the soft-spoken Osaka said she was most proud of the fact “I fought for every match here, starting with Cincinnati (the Western & Southern Open played at Flushing Meadows), leading up to here.”

Minutes later, though, Osaka talked to ESPN about her activism. “I wanted more people to show more names,” she said, referring to her attention-getting face masks commemorating the victims of police brutality.

Immensely popular around the world, the Japanese-Haitian superstar who lives in California is the highest-paid female athlete of all time, according to an annual list published by Forbes in May. Her fast-growing fan base includes more than 700,000 Twitter followers. No wonder sports business media company SportsPro rated the charismatic Osaka the world’s most marketable athlete last year.

“She’s going to be the new leader for the women’s game,” said Evert. “We’ve had some great leaders, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova. But it’s time to have someone like Naomi who everyone can embrace and understand and relate to.”

It was about time for Thiem

Winning is an evolution.” – Michael Jordan.

The critical points make the difference for champions.” – Billie Jean King.

“A massive opportunity for us younger guys.” That’s what Alexander Zverev called the shocking disqualification of heavy favourite Novak Djokovic for accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball during his fourth-round match. With Roger Federer rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee and Rafael Nadal not defending his 2019 US Open title due to coronavirus concerns, Djokovic had been expected to extend the legendary Big Three’s streak of 13 straight major championships.

But which “younger guy” would take advantage of the flukish mishap at the first fan-less Grand Slam, a visceral change emblematic of a world turned upside down by a pandemic?

Dominic Thiem, a not-so-young 27, brought the most experience but also plenty of scar tissue after losing three major finals, twice to Nadal at the French Open and once to Djokovic at the Australian Open this year. Daniil Medvedev, the only other Next Genner to reach a Grand Slam final, lost a five-set thriller to Nadal here a year ago. Also knocking on the door was Zverev, whose his best major came when he reached the 2020 Australian Open semifinals. The last bona-fide contender, Stefanos Tsitsipas, exploded onto the world stage at the 2019 Aussie Open, upsetting Federer to reach the semis, but since then had won just one big tournament, the ATP Finals, 10 months ago.

One of this quartet, or perhaps a dark horse, such as younger rising stars Denis Shapovalov or Felix Auger-Aliassime, would seize his first Grand Slam title and also become the first major champion born in the 1990s and the first non-Big Three winner at any major since Stan Wawrinka here in 2016.

William Hill bookmakers’s pre-US Open odds had Djokovic an overwhelming favourite at -125 (risk $125 to win $100), followed by Medvedev (6-1), Thiem (7-1), Tsitsipas (7-1), Milos Raonic (20-1), Zverev (25-1) and Roberto Bautista Agut (25-1). Pablo Carreño Busta, an unheralded Spaniard who benefited when Djokovic was defaulted in their match, was listed at 150-1. The odds were surprisingly low for Zverev even though, as he conceded, “I’ve always struggled at Grand Slams.” His 2020 Aussie Open success boosted Zverev’s confidence so much that he presciently predicted, “My game now is ready to do something big at a Grand Slam.”

Even more ready, though, was Thiem. Actually, there was no comparison between the records of these two contenders. Zverev was 0-7 against top 10 players at the majors, including a four-set loss to Thiem at this year’s Australian Open. Besides reaching three major finals, Thiem boasted five career wins over both Federer and Nadal and four over Djokovic. Even more relevant is that the mild-mannered Austrian owned a 7-3 record against the Big Three since January 2019. Thiem also trumped Zverev in the head-to-head stats, leading 7-2 overall, 3-0 at majors and 3-0 in their three last matches.

The big unknown

Whatever the odds and stats were, the big unknown was how the absence of spectators at this sui generis US Open might affect the contenders and pretenders. Medvedev, who went from villain to hero at the 2019 tournament, said he wouldn’t have reached the final then if it weren’t for the fans. Thiem agreed, saying, “Tennis is such a mental sport, and I guess it makes it way more difficult without fans, because I just imagine playing in the fifth set on Arthur Ashe, night session, way past midnight — and in a normal year, you get so much energy from the fans.” As it turned out, Thiem and others learned that they could do great things in the fifth set even without fans.

TV fans, anyway, were blessed with a plethora of five-set duels that tested the skill and will of the combatants. We’ll never know if cheers (and occasional jeers) would have made a difference in the results. But their absence didn’t detract from — and may have even enhanced — self-reliant No. 11 Karen Khachanov’s 3-6, 6-7, 6-2, 6-0, 7-6 (4) comeback over 19-year-old, rising star Jannik Sinner. You also had to marvel at the never-say-die spirit of 2012 champion Andy Murray. Slowed by painful hip woes and over the hill at 33, Murray staved off a match point in the fourth set to overcome diminutive (5’7”) Yoshihito Nishioka 4-6, 4-6, 7-6, 7-6, 6-4. “A victory like that sums up Murray’s career,” said Cahill. “It was built on guts and determination.”

These early-round marathons were just appetizers for the even more dramatic and consequential battles to come from Shapovalov and Zverev. You may remember that the teenaged Shapovalov angrily but inadvertently whacked a ball that broke the chair umpire’s eye socket in a 2017 Davis Cup match. Severe critics of Djokovic’s US Open contretemps, like John McEnroe, who said “This is a stain he can’t erase,” are refuted by this similar case; the contrite Shapovalov paid for the umpire’s medical bills, improved his court behavior and regained his reputation.

“Sorry, I think I killed someone, right?” Daniil Medvedev sarcastically told the Grand Slam supervisor after receiving a code violation for crossing the net.   -  AP

 

In the third round, 12th seed Shapovalov, a lefty shotmaker extraordinaire, fought off six match points to outlast 19th-seeded American Taylor Fritz 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2. “Shapovalov’s serve is phenomenal for his (6’1”) size,” raved ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert. “He can hit it 135 mph, kick it, slice it. He has massive (ground stroke) firepower. He has to hit with more spin and play a little more defence (to reduce his errors). But he has top-5 potential.” The impetuousness of youth cost the 21-year-old Canadian in the quarterfinals, though, when Carreño Busta, a high-percentage Spanish veteran, wore down the hyper-kinetic, less-consistent Shapovalov, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 0-6, 6-3.

Zverev, like Shapovalov, often puts himself in a hole against lesser opponents by losing the first set. For instance, the 6’6” German of Russian descent had to dig himself out with solid four-set wins over No. 32 seed Adrian Mannarino and No. 27 Borna Coric, who has failed to live up to his teenage billing as a future star.

On the 19th anniversary of the infamous 9/11 attack on New York City (and elsewhere), Zverev showed the same resiliency against Carreño Busta as Americans did after that fateful day. But not before he played two of the poorest sets ever in a Grand Slam semifinal by the eventual winner. “Mentally, I stayed in it,” he said afterward. “Sometimes you have to dig deep. Today I dug deep, dug very deep.”

Zverev’s comeback

Indeed he did. Zverev, not hitherto known for being a great fighter, had never before come back from being two sets down, going 0-6. Without panicking, the German went from lackadaisical and slow-footed to energetic and aggressive, hitting the ball on the rise and winning 75 percent of his points from inside the baseline in the third set. He broke Carreño Busta’s serve in each of the third and fourth sets to draw even at two sets apiece.

Riding the momentum, Sascha, his nickname, kept pounding heavy ground strokes and serving aces, 23 in all, and held serve with a 130-mph second serve winner to take a 4-2 lead in the deciding set. When he secured a second service break to take the match 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, he became the first German man to reach the US Open final since Michael Stich in 1994. “We still haven’t seen the best of Alexander, but he’s finding ways to win matches,” said Cahill.

In the other half of the draw, No. 2 seed Thiem, who typically plays more tournaments than other top-10 competitors, had no desire to rest and recharge his batteries during the five-month shutdown. Instead, he wisely competed in 28 exhibition matches in Europe, some on grass in Berlin but most on clay Monte Carlo. Grass would sharpen his volleying and passing shots, while clay would fine-tune his ground strokes and tactics.

“A massive opportunity for us younger guys.” That’s what Alexander Zverev called the shocking disqualification of heavy favourite Novak Djokovic for accidentally hitting a line judge in the throat with a ball during his fourth-round match.   -  AP

 

In retrospect, it wasn’t surprising that the match-tough Thiem blitzed his US Open opponents up to the semifinals. Only 31st-seeded Marin Cilic, the 2014 US Open champion but past his prime, got a set, while Thiem was spectacular in his 7-6 (4) 6-1, 6-1 rout of No. 15 Auger-Aliassime and his 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 demolition of No. 21 Alex de Minaur.

Thiem politely but firmly dismissed media criticism that the semifinals were weak without the Big Three. “There is no Roger, Rafa, Novak, but there is Daniil, Sascha and Pablo now. There are three other amazing players,” he countered. “Every single one of us deserves this first major title. Everybody will give it all. Once we step on the court, those other three are forgotten anyway.”

Medvedev, who became the oddsmakers’ favourite after the Djokovic default, had the easiest draw, and advanced without dropping a set. He faced only one seed, No. 10 and fellow Russian Andrey Rublev. The first set is seldom pivotal in a best-of-five-set match, but Rublev became unglued when he blew a 5-1 tiebreaker lead. When he committed two unforced forehand errors to give Medvedev a 7-6 lead, the frustrated Rublev threw his racket. A Medvedev ace finished him off. “The Big Three can lose a set like Rublev did and forget about it, unlike most of the top 100,” pointed out Gilbert. The volatile Rublev fumed much of the rest of the match and succumbed 7-6 (6), 6-3, 7-6 (5), despite Medvedev’s cramping in the third set.

Contrasting styles

Contrasting styles in sports often make fascinating contests, and that’s especially true in tennis. “We’re going to see a chess match,” predicted McEnroe. “Medvedev likes to mix his shots up and Thiem likes to bludgeon the ball.” he added, “Medvedev drives you crazy. He’s an extremely awkward guy to play. (But) if he gets too passive, he’ll get in trouble.” Playing too passively cost the Russian the first two sets in his five-set loss to Nadal in the 2019 final at Flushing Meadows.

In the Tale of the Tape, two stats stood out: Medvedev had held serve 96 percent of the time, a tournament high, while Thiem had broken opponents’ serve 43 percent of the time, also a tournament-high. Thiem led their rivalry 2-1, but this was their first meeting at a major.

On the first critical point in this toss-up semifinal, fate was unkind to Medvedev. Facing break point at 2-3, 30-40, Medvedev hit a serve that he thought was long — which the replay confirmed — and then lost the point and the game when he halfheartedly hit Thiem’s return. When chair umpire Damien Dumusois ineptly failed to overrule the terrible line call, Medvedev wanted to challenge, but Dumusois said it was too late. The Russian then crossed the net to indicate where he thought the mark was and received a code violation for that. Exasperated, he sarcastically told Grand Slam supervisor Wayne McKewen, “Sorry, I think I killed someone, right? Sorry, I was so bad to cross the net. Sorry, my apologies, my sincere apologies to the US Open for crossing the net. Oh my god.” Thiem sportingly asked the umpire to allow Medvedev to challenge, but that was denied. Then equally graciously, Medvedev apologised to Thiem for the incident.

“This will be the end of line judges,” predicted ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe. “Hawk-Eye Live would have made the call, and it’s right all the time.” Let’s hope so. Hawk-Eye Live, used highly successfully on 11 of the 13 courts for health safety reasons, eliminated line judges and, most importantly, Player Challenges. Human eyesight errors from umpires, line judges and players have resulted in countless incorrect line calls since Hawk-Eye and Player Challenges were adopted in 2006.

READ | Thiem wins US Open final on tiebreak against Zverev after five-set thriller

Thiem went on to capture the opening set 6-2. The disgruntled Medvedev regrouped in the second set and had five break points with Thiem serving at 5-6. He blew two break points with double faults, while the Austrian’s lethal forehand increasingly found its mark to fend off the other three. Medvedev then held serve to force a tiebreaker.

Medvedev desperately needed to win the second set, given his 0-6 career record in five-set matches at majors. He could take heart, though, from his perfect 7-0 career tiebreaker record at the US Open.

At 7-all in the tiebreaker, Medvedev unwisely hit a horrendous drop shot that Thiem easily put away. Thiem then forced a forehand error to take the tiebreaker 9-7.

At 5-3 in the third set, Medvedev served for the set for the second set in a row. He failed again when Thiem belted a forehand winner on break point. Three games later, their second tiebreaker would decide the set and the match.

They punched and counterpunched ferociously with Thiem racing to a 5-1 lead. Medvedev, ever the tactician, fought back to 5-4 with one point coming when he surprisingly served and volleyed on his second serve and hit a lunging backhand drop volley winner. At 5-4, Thiem countered with a rocket 98-mph backhand down the line to make it 6-4. Feeling the pressure on match point, Medvedev stroked an unforced forehand error in the net. Thiem prevailed 6-2, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5).

“This was not a normal straight-set match,” rightly said Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone. “It was geometry. It was chess. It was a war.”

Medvedev lavished praise on his conquerer: “He played like a real champion. He’s playing really some great tennis — backhand, forehand, slice... Everything is there.”

The final

Before the final, both Thiem and Zverev talked about making tennis history, albeit in very different ways. “If I win, I will have my first Grand Slam. And if not, I will probably have to call Andy (Murray) about how it is to be 0-4,” quipped Thiem about the dubious distinction of losing his first four major finals.

“When you start playing tennis at a young age, this is the thing that you always wanted to do — to play in big tournaments, to play in the big finals,” said Zverev, whose parents are tennis coaches and whose older brother Mischa also plays on the tour. “I feel like this is the reason I started playing tennis. You’ve got to be able to handle it. You’ve got to be able to learn with it. For me, it was always about the big moments in big tournaments. The final is what makes legends.”

Zverev designed smart tactics to take advantage of Thiem’s extremely deep position on serve returns and his sometimes vulnerable one-handed backhand. Zverev would serve and volley on occasion, sneak into net when the Austrian floated his slice backhand, whack bullet second serves sometimes to keep Thiem off balance, use his much-improved defense when necessary to elicit errors from Thiem, and hit crosscourt forehands to set up his down-the-line forehand.

Does the Dominic Thiem-Sascha Zverev final at the US Open presage a great rivalry vying for Grand Slam and Olympic titles in the 2020s or a brief interregnum in the Big Three reign?   -  AFP

 

In a season unlike any other, it was perhaps fitting that the men’s final would be unpredictable from start to finish. Apparently feeling the pressure of being the favourite, Thiem came out tight as a drum. A Thiem double fault and two dynamic Zverev backhand volleys gave the German the first service break for 2-1, and two more costly double faults helped Sascha break again for 5-2. After he grabbed the set 6-2, Patrick McEnroe commented, “This is eerily reminiscent of the Zverev who defeated Federer and Djokovic to win the 2018 ATP Finals.”

Thiem looked rattled after Zverev broke twice more to zoom ahead 4-1 in the second set. A forehand winner in the next game extend the lead to 5-1. Thiem showed his first sign of life when he broke back with a volley winner to make it 5-3, but Zverev slammed the second set door shut with huge groundies to take it 6-4.

No player had ever come back from two sets down in a US final in the Open Era, and the odds grew even longer when Zverev, playing superb defense and hitting timely winners, broke Thiem for 2-1 in the third set. The tide finally started turning when Thiem broke right back for 2-2. On his third break point try, Zverev’s surprise serve and volley backfired as his backhand half-volley landed in the alley. The German’s worst game of the match cost him a service break and the third set 6-4.

Momentum swing

The momentum had clearly swung to Thiem. His confidence soared as he pounded his ground strokes with increasing ferocity to easily hold serve throughout the fourth set and get the only break he needed in the eighth game. Conversely, Zverev lost his conviction. “Zverev has to pull himself together and get more positive and think he can win this thing,” said John McEnroe.

Zverev finally did both. After Thiem broke his serve in the opening game of the deciding set, Zverev retaliated with a dazzling backhand passing shot to earn a break point. When Thiem double faulted, Zverev yelled “Come on! Let’s go! Let’s go!”

The fifth set continued to fluctuate as the resurgent Zverev broke serve again to lead 5-3. Thiem broke right back for 5-4. But Zverev was only six points away from his first major title when Thiem served at 5-all, 30-all. Then the Austrian won the next two critical points with powerful forehands. Both warriors were suffering from leg cramps and lost their next two service games to send it into a tiebreaker.

“They’re digging deeper than they’ve ever had to in their lives,” said John McEnroe. Indeed, each would have to dig deeper to win the most prestigious title in their lives.

Thiem was hobbling for shots but belted a forehand passing shot winner to pull ahead 6-4. On championship point, though, he faltered, netting a routine forehand. He redeemed himself with another winning forehand passing shot to earn another championship point at 7-6. When Zverev missed a crosscourt backhand wide, Thiem prevailed 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (6) for his first Grand Slam title.

Ignoring the US Open protocol of touching rackets to maintain social distancing, they shook hands and hugged each other. Then the ecstatic Thiem screamed and collapsed on his back, a victory gesture started by Björn Borg at Wimbledon way back in the 1970s. A smile stayed on Thiem’s face after he achieved his longtime goal and dream.

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Meanwhile, Zverev stared blankly. “I don’t think it would be possible for Zverev to have a tougher loss in his career,” said John McEnroe.

Thiem’s career-changing triumph resulted mostly from superior technique. He sustained his potent serving throughout the tournament, unlike Zverev, whose second serve sometimes betrayed him. He also possessed the field’s most formidable ground stroke, a devastating topspin forehand.

Harry Kirsch, an American tennis expert born and raised in the former Czechoslovakia, explained Thiem’s stunning comeback in terms of European culture and character: “John McPhee could use this US Open final as material for a sequel to his marvelous Levels of the Game book. This too was a clash of two cultures — the more confident, tough, even brutal Teutonic, versus the more sensitive, less confident Slavic. As the Germanic Thiem played through pain and adversity, absolutely refusing to lose, the Russian Zverev, with each opportunity to seal the victory, was getting less and less confident, most obvious by his ill-timed forays to net and total inability to serve. After the match, the conqueror Thiem could not stop laughing, while the sensitive, fragile vanquished Zverev suffered a break-down during the trophy presentation ceremony. Different ‘levels of the game’ indeed.”

Does this Thiem-Zverev final presage a great rivalry vying for Grand Slam and Olympic titles in the 2020s or a brief interregnum in the Big Three reign?

The first answer to this burning question will come soon at the French Open. There, Thiem, Zverev and other challengers will likely have to defeat either 12-time champion Nadal or No. 1 Djokovic to raise the winner’s trophy.