Alexander Zverev smiled weakly when reminded yet again that the last time a German won the US Open – Boris Becker, in 1989 – the Berlin Wall was still standing. But Zverev (whose parents played for the Soviet Union) also knows that if his wounded Austrian friend Dominic Thiem is similarly upright on Sunday, one of them will make tennis history.
Thiem hurt his leg when playing Daniil Medvedev on Friday evening and was unsure if it was adrenalin that had carried him through repeated crises to win in three sets that were much better than any of the five it took Zverev to beat Pablo Carreño Busta in the first semi-final. The resilient world No 3 has a day to recover but the injury will play on his mind.
Neither finalist has won a slam. They know Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer (both absentees), as well as the world No 1, Novak Djokovic (thrown out after a meltdown in the fourth round), between them own 56 of the previous 67 slam titles, including the past 13. That’s a closed shop of which a British barrister would be proud.
Djokovic, who has won five of the previous seven majors, was the overwhelming favourite to win what would have been a fourth US Open title. The last interloper, 2014 champion Marin Cilic, could not get past Thiem in the third round. The 2012 champion, Andy Murray, beat Zverev in the Cincinnati Open three weeks ago but went out in the second round in New York. Now the tournament that might never have happened because of the pandemic will celebrate a new champion.
Medvedev, who lost to Nadal in last year’s final and could not beat the injured Thiem despite serving for the second and third sets with comfortable leads, said of the absent legends: “No matter which day you play them, it seems like they play the same level. Myself or Dominic, we can have these bad days. Dominic can have a day when he’s going to miss a lot of shots when he’s going to go for it. Today was not the case.
“He’s one of very few guys who is super close to the big three in terms of playing, first on a very high level, then second holding this level for however long the match takes. He played like a real champion.”
But champions win big championships. Thiem has won plenty elsewhere but is yet to do so in three slam finals and he joked about the same challenge facing Murray when he took his fourth chance here eight years ago: “It’s easy for Andy because he has won three in the meantime.”
Zverev, meanwhile, cannot afford to dwell on Thiem’s injury. He has problems of his own, not least his dreadful start against Carreño Busta, who faded with victory in sight and the burden of having yet to win a major despite his widely celebrated talent.
“The two best players in the world are going to be on court,” he said. “From the moment Novak was out of the tournament, it was clear there was going to be a new grand slam champion. We played an epic in Australia [when Thiem won their semi-final in four sets].”
Thiem described Zverev as “one of the greatest in the past few years, won all titles [except] a major. He will try everything. But it really doesn’t matter whether it’s him or one of the big three. When we step on the court on Sunday, it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s huge for both of us. The most crucial point is the return of his serve. His first serve is one of the best – if not the best – out there. It’s so fast, so precise.”
Thiem has beaten the world No 1 three years in a row (Nadal in 2018, Djokovic in 2019 and Nadal this year) but not when it mattered most. “I learned a lot from every single match, win or lose. They are without a doubt the three greatest players who played the sport.”
Thiem, if fit, should win over four sets and put himself at the heart of a fresh discussion on greatness.