Epic US Open final gives us a glimpse into into life after the Big Three and it was glorious to behold
So this is what tennis will look like when the modern-day icons are no longer dominating the game’s biggest stages.
For as long as most of us can remember, our sport has been fearfully counting down to the moment when Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic bring their trophy-laden careers to an end, with the three enduring legends of the modern game carrying unique auras that may be impossible to replace.
Yet a welcome glimpse into the future in an epic US Open final between Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev confirmed tennis will still have a thumping pulse when the next generation of champions finally get their chance to shine.
Thiem’s 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6) triumph was made all the more remarkable as he finished the final crippled by injuries, while Zverev’s desperate self-destruction cost him glory as his service motion collapsed under pressure in a manner that has to leave a lasting mark on the traumatised German.
Yet the failings of both competitors added to this narrative in this battle, with Zverev’s 68mph serve in the tie-break evidence that he had lost his nerve when it mattered most and for that reason, Thiem found a way to prevail.
There is no denying that the sublime quality and unfathomable consistency that has been a trademark of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic for a decade and more was absent in this a final that was laced with tension, nerves on both side of the net and errors aplenty, but the tension and drama of the plot that unfolded on Arthur Ashe Stadium was as gripping as any Grand Slam final we have seen featuring the game’s Big Three.
This was only the second decisive match in a major not to feature one of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic since 2003 and it served up a contest that included qualities all tennis players around the world could associate with, as mental frailties were in evidence all over the court in a match that demanded your attention from first point to last.
The uncertainty surrounding each and every game added to the intrigue and even after Zverev won the first two sets in surprisingly comfortable fashion as he played with a brilliant abandon that was too much for Thiem, there was always a feeling that the German’s inner demons rise back to the surface as the winning line drew close.
He came within six points of victory at the end of the third set, yet five-set US Open finals are only won by those who can sustain their brilliance and few were surprised when the double faults started to flow and Thiem dragged the final in a deciding set.
With the prize of a first major title in sight for both men, each game was an ordeal at both ends of the court and amid momentum shifts aplenty, it was Thiem’s incredible collection of passing shots when he was serving to stay in the match at 4-5 gave him the momentum required to break a desperately nervous Zverev in the next game and yet there were to be more breaks of serve before a tie-break that was painful to watch in many ways as both men staggered towards the winning line.
This was not an epic tennis match in terms of its quality, but for so many reasons, this was one of the most captivating major finals we have seen in a long time.
The bigger picture has to be that tennis was the biggest winner at a strange and bizarre US Open lacking the familiar vibe a New York crowd provide as Thiem and Zverev confirmed the sport can thrive even in the absence of their greatest assets.
We will all miss the majesty of Federer, the brutally of Nadal and the clinical efficiency of Djokovic when they are gone, but tennis can now be confident that it will continue to thrive in their absence.
Follow Kevin Palmer on Twitter @RealKevinPalmer
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