It was the US Open final nobody wanted to win.
We’ve been waiting for Generation Next to take over tennis and brush the big three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic aside and they finally had their chance in New York.
Federer and Nadal were absent while Djokovic’s disqualification for hitting a lineswoman opened the door for the first debut major winner since 2014.
Dominic Thiem eventually secured that mantle, making history by becoming the first man in the Open era to come back from two sets down and win the US Open as he overcame Alexander Zverev in a wild five-setter 2-6 4-6 6-4 6-3 7-6 — the first time the Flushing Meadows major has been decided by a fifth-set tiebreak.
“I wish we could have two winners today. We both deserved it,” Thiem said.
But boy did Thiem make it hard for himself.
Each time it looked like one man had the upper hand, they let their opponent back into the contest.
Commentators accused Thiem of playing “shockingly bad” in the opening two sets as he failed to fire a shot, wrecked by nerves in his fourth grand slam final. He somehow clawed his way back to win the third set despite not finding his fluent best, before kicking into gear in the fourth as his confidence soared.
Both players broke each other in the first two games of the fifth set before Zverev broke a second time for 5-3. But a series of unforced errors and two incredible down-the-line forehand winners from Thiem brought him back from the brink and the 27-year-old broke again for a 6-5 lead.
Zverev wasn’t done though, summoning everything he had to drag the decider into a tiebreak. But that’s where his fight ended as Thiem landed the killer blow in the breaker.
Instead of Gen Next grabbing this opportunity with both hands and stamping their authority on the tennis world, Thiem essentially stumbled over the line — because his rival fell over just before he did.
Despite the dramatic scoreline, many were unimpressed with the spectacle. New York Times tennis writer Ben Rothenberg called the final a “lumpy match” and “so bad it’s good” as the fifth-set tiebreak arrived.
He added “I think we’re all ready for this to be over” as the breaker dragged on.
Serbian tennis reporter Sasa Ozmo wrote on Twitter it was a “crappy final”, saying: “Overall this hasn’t been match of highest quality, especially not for a grand slam final.
“If Djokovic is watching this final, he must be even angrier with himself.”
American comedian Sean Kent wrote: “If this is the future of the ATP Tour then men’s tennis is in a horrible place. The women’s matches have been so much higher in quality. This final is a dud.”
However, Sports Illustrated writer Jon Wertheim said there was “too much hate for this match”.
“Think of the stakes here for both these guys — the context of opportunity, the shadow of the Big Three. Not surprising the level of play was not always optimal,” he tweeted.
“Sometimes it’s the quality of the match; sometimes it’s the quality of theatre.”
But regardless of how he got there, Thiem will forever be known as a grand slam winner and the world No. 3 sunk to the court in disbelief at finally cracking the elusive club of major winners. Back at his seat, he could only laugh at how absurd the see-sawing contest he’d just been part of was, chuckling to himself as his achievement started to sink in.
Zverev, by contrast, was shattered. Head in hands, the world No. 7 could not believe how he’d let the match slip as his wait for silverware drags on.
Zverev was a bundle of nerves in his semi-final against Pablo Carreno Busta — which he won after dropping the first two sets — but came out for the decider a changed man. He was confident and aggressive, charging to the net at every opportunity to rattle Thiem.
The German won 92 per cent of points on his first serve and seven of eight points at the net as his transformation paid dividends.
It was a similar story to start the second set as Zverev maintained the rage before Thiem finally broke for the first time in the match midway through the set — only to crumble again and stare down the barrel of a convincing defeat.
Thiem recovered in the third set and though far from his best, did enough to stay level with Zverev until breaking him at 5-4. The Austrian really turned things on in the fourth, finally discovering the form that matches his world ranking.
Some costly errors by Zverev — including a double fault — allowed Thiem to break and he served the set out to set up a decider.
The twists and turns kept coming in a wild climax, each player seemingly intent on throwing the match away when it was within their grasp.
In the end, although both stars were wobbly, Thiem stayed on his feet a touch longer than Zverev to clinch the tiebreak and celebrate the sweet taste of grand slam success.