Dominic Thiem gets fourth shot at first major, against Alexander Zverev

    Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for over 35 years, mostly recently for ESPN. He is a former WTA Writer of the Year and the author of numerous books, including the classic “The Courts of Babylon” and the New York Times bestseller (with Pete Sampras), “A Champion’s Mind.”

NEW YORK — This time, the man on the other side of the net from Dominic Thiem in a Grand Slam final won’t be Rafael Nadal, greatest clay court player of all time, on the red dirt in the stade Roland Garros.

This time, Thiem will not be facing Novak Djokovic, who had won four of the past five majors and seven previous Australian Open titles on the pretty blue court in Rod Laver Arena.

This time, Thiem, still hunting that first Grand Slam title, will be the favorite to win the US Open when he meets Alexander Zverev, the 6-foot-6 power server who will be contesting his first major final in a fan-free Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN and the ESPN App).

Thiem, a 27-year-old generational “tweener” who has fought gamely but been frustrated in three Grand Slam finals, earned his place in the championship match on Friday with an artful but also brutal demolition of the tournament’s No. 3 seed, Daniil Medvedev.

Zverev, just 23, advanced at the expense of the player who most benefited from the unexpected default of top seed Djokovic, No. 20 seed Pablo Carreno Busta.

To many, the clash between Thiem and Medvedev seemed like the “real final,” a forgivable presumption given that the two men had been the runners-up in the past two Grand Slam events. They justified the hype, too, even though Thiem won in straight sets, 6-2, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5).

“I think it was a great match on a very high level,” Thiem said. “Probably the toughest straight-sets win I ever had.”

Medvedev concurred: “He played like a real champion. He’s playing really some great tennis — backhand, forehand, slice. … Everything is there.”

Because this tournament was played in a bio-secure “bubble,” players, guests and staff were severely limited, and there were no fans allowed on the grounds. But the eerie stillness that settled over Arthur Ashe Stadium and its deserted surroundings on this cool, peaceful evening were quickly shattered by the sound of shots that cracked like thunder in the nearly empty stadium, and grunts that grew increasingly titanic as the match wore on.

The first set was marred by a dispute in the sixth game over a missed service line call that led to Thiem winning the point to break for a 4-2 lead. Medvedev, who had stopped play on the assumption the serve was long, was denied a challenge. He proceeded to joust verbally with chair umpire Damien Dumusois and, clearly upset, he played poorly for the rest of the set.

“I lost my concentration, started doing some errors,” Medvedev said. “We can talk about some shots, losing concentration in the first set. But Dominic, he played really good.”

Medvedev, a 24-year old from Russia, took his game up a notch in the next two sets, as did Thiem. He served for the second and third sets, but Thiem raised his own game, clawed back the advantage, and proved more mentally stable under pressure.

“He served for sets two and three and, luckily for me, I played my best tennis just then.” Thiem said.

Medvedev has emerged as perhaps the most complex and dangerous player vying to break through at a major.

“He such an interesting guy because he gives you the illusion that there’s so much space to hit to when you see him, this 6-6 guy standing 15 feet behind the baseline,” Paul Annacone, the former coach of Roger Federer who is now an analyst at Tennis Channel, told ESPN earlier in the day. “You think you’re in good shape because guys that big don’t usually move that well, or hit that well on the run. Guess what? This guy does.”

There’s more. Medvedev’s defense is impregnable, but analysts love the dizzying variety of offensive looks he gives his opponents. Medvedev hits off-speed as well as atomic forehands with the same swing. He has one of the deadliest of serves because he hits his spots accurately, with serious speed approaching 130 mph. He will try the first, daring serve-and-volley attack of a set at the most crucial time, and often hits at opponents — not with intent to intimidate but to freeze them when they’re neurologically programmed to sprint left or right. He’ll toss a drop shot in almost any time.

Thiem is also famous for playing from far back in the court, where he can whale away with his serve returns and then just ratchet up the pace, slowly working through brutal rallies to get just the setup he wants to finish with one of those enormous forehand blasts or a lashing topspin backhand. That’s the kind of tennis Medvedev thrives on, so Thiem and his coach Nicolas Massu came up with a different strategy.

“If I play with his [Medvedev’s] rhythm, he doesn’t miss,” Thiem said “So I tried to destroy that with a lot of slices and high balls with a lot of spin.”

It was a successful if risky strategy, and a testament to the progress Thiem has made since hiring Massu as his coach early in 2019. Just three weeks into their relationship, Thiem won the ATP Masters 1000 event at Indian Wells — arguably, the most prestigious ATP Tour event, and the first Masters title Thiem bagged in three tries.The key to his upset of Federer in the final was a more well-rounded game, with greater use of hard-court tools like slice, chip-and-charge, and changes of pace.

“When we began to work it was on being more unpredictable on hard courts,” Massu told ESPN late last year. “Dominic needed to finish more points at the net, play with more height variation in his shots (meaning, among other things, slice backhands) and to return from different positions inside or behind the court. He put those things in his game fast and won the tournament.”

Those same tactics boosted him into the upcoming final with Zverev, who became only the sixth man to come back from a two-sets-to-none deficit in the US Open semifinals. The key to his win over Carreno Busta was his menacing serve, bolstered by his surprisingly good court coverage for a man of 6-6.

Once again, as in his quarterfinal against Borna Coric, Zverev looked out of sorts and slow at the start of the match. But this time he spotted his opponent an even larger lead. It’s easy to get frustrated with Zverev’s casual manner, but he showed on Friday that it’s a form of poise. Nothing, not even falling behind by two sets to an underdog on one of his deepest penetrations into a Grand Slam draw, rattles Zverev.

“I looked at the scoreboard after two sets. I thought to myself, ‘Look, I’m playing a Grand Slam semifinal, I’m down 6-3, 6-2 in a match where on paper I’m supposed to be the favorite.’ I needed to play better, start something new. I did that.”

Zverev came to life after that realization, playing with greater aggression. He got his serve dialed in. He was able, step-by-step, to break down Carreno Busta’s resistance.

“Sometimes you have to dig deep,” he said. “Today I dug deep, dug very deep. At the end of the day I’m sitting here as the winner of that match, which could have been very different.”

When Thiem was asked if he felt relieved that he finally matched up with a Grand Slam final opponent who isn’t one of the Big Three, he said, “He’s a different type of opponent than Nadal, but that won’t change my mindset at all.”

Thiem leads his series with Zverev 7-2, but their last Grand Slam match, at the Australian Open, was an excruciatingly close four-set battle.

“I think for me the most crucial point is the return of his serve, because his first serve is one of the, if not the best, out there right now,” Thiem said. “It’s so fast, so precise. That will be a key point, I guess. Try to put many balls back in play.”

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