It was the weekend of comebacks at the U.S. Open in Flushing — a fitting tribute to a city that has made one helluva COVID comeback.
The Twilight Zone version of the fan-less Open concluded Sunday in an epic four-hour match and a first-ever fifth-set tiebreaker of a men’s final.
Austrian Dominic Thiem rallied from two sets down and an early break in the third to post a five-set 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5) victory over German Alexander Zverev at empty Arthur Ashe Stadium.
When it was over, Thiem and Zverev, two German-speaking tour buddies, broke the fortnight’s social protocols, slapping hands and embracing instead of tapping rackets as had been the coronavirus custom. Who could blame them.
“We are really good friends,’’ Thiem said. “We have a long-term friendship. We were both tested negative maybe 14 times. We didn’t put anyone in danger,” Thiem said. “We wanted to share the moment. We tested negative like 12 times. We just wanted to share this moment. We didn’t put anybody in danger.”
It was the first time in 70 years a five-setter in a men’s Open final was won by a player who had been two sets down.
It’s been known for a week there would be a first-time men’s Grand Slam champion after Novak Djokovic’s disqualification. That turned out to be Thiem, the second seed who came in with a 7-2 record against his big-serving friend but admitted he was pressing early.
“I had a great career so far, way better career than I could ever dreamt of, but until today there was still a big part, a big goal missing,’’ Thiem said.
It finally ended with Zverev pulling a backhand wide as the cramping Austrian fell in joy onto his back.
“I was so tight at the beginning,’’ said Thiem, who had been in three prior Grand Slam finals. “I wanted this title so much, and of course there was also in my head that if I lose this one, it’s 0-4 [in Grand Slam finals]. We both didn’t face one of the Big 3. That was in the back of the head for both of us. That’s why we were on nerves.”
The classic men’s final came one day after the women’s final featured Naomi Osaka rallying from a horrifying first set to win her second women’s crown.
The fifth-set tiebreak matched the five-set win by Thiem over Zverev in the Australian Open semifinals. Thiem also rallied from 5-3 down in the fifth set with Zverev serving for the match and 2-0 in the fifth-set tiebreaker. Thiem said he cramped up late but his mind outperformed his body.
Zverev, after playing in his first Grand Slam final, choked up several times while receiving the runner-up trophy, having to pause for more than 10 seconds to gather himself when he referred to his parents as “important people missing in the crowd today.’’
For two sets, Thiem pounded his famous forehand deep and he looked oddly detached in his fourth Grand Slam final before settling in. Zverev started to show nerves late in the second set, blowing a 5-1 lead, but he held on to take a two-sets-to-none lead.
The momentum had shifted by then. Thiem reverted to his rock-solid baseline form to become the first Austrian to win a Grand Slam since Tomas Muster won the 1995 French Open.
The comeback capped a successfully healthy if controversial Open. While the world’s best player, Djokovic, was disqualified, it was not because of COVID-19 but for accidentally flicking a tennis ball that struck a female line judge in the neck.
No players tested positive for the coronavirus once the first ball was struck two weeks ago. The Flushing tennis center has come a long way since its turn as a harbor for COVID-19 patients in April— as did New York City, once the world’s hot spot.
“At the end we reflect back and say it’s safe, it’s been good for tennis, and it’s been financially good for the players and the tennis ecosystem,’’ USTA CEO Michael Dowse said.
The fifth set was a classic roller coaster. Thiem was up a break but double-faulted to let Zverev get the marathon back on serve with the German ultimately getting ahead 5-3. One more comeback remained for Thiem.
“When he served for the match, I was struggling physically, but I also thought that he is not the freshest anymore,’’ Thiem said. “The belief was stronger than the body.’’