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Opinion

2020 US Open: The final word

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Roar Guru
14th September, 2020
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In a normal world, the Grand Slam season would be over for the year, but due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which has caused social and economic havoc around the world, the recently-concluded US Open was instead held as the second major of 2020, and the decade.

With coronavirus continuing to rapidly spread across the globe, it was announced in June that while the US Open had been approved to go ahead under New York governor Andrew Cuomo, it would be held without crowds in attendance.

This meant that, for the first time, hundreds of thousands of tennis fans in the United States would be locked out of Flushing Meadows, with television coverage the only way they could get their fortnight’s tennis fix.

Understandably, the pandemic caused several high-profile names to sit out the American major, with the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu all opting to bypass “the city that never sleeps”.

This meant that for the first time since the 2003 US Open, a major tournament would be void of both defending champions.

But the 2020 US Open wasn’t without its star power, with Novak Djokovic, Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Naomi Osaka and Petra Kvitova, among others, choosing to participate.

With heavyweights Federer and Nadal absent from the main draw of the same major for the first time since the 1999 US Open, and Novak Djokovic defaulted in the fourth round, the changing of the guard we had all been patiently waiting for has inevitably arrived.

Novak Djokovic plays a backhand

Novak Djokovic is having a shocker of a year (Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Of the eight quarter-finalists, Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta was the oldest of them, qualifying for his second US Open semi-final at age 29 after being the beneficiary of Djokovic’s fourth round departure from the tournament.

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Ultimately, it was Alexander Zverev (born in 1997) and Dominic Thiem (born in 1993) who were left to contest the men’s championship, making it the first time that a new major champion was guaranteed since Marin Cilic defeated Kei Nishikori to win the 2014 US Open.

For Thiem, who turned 27 earlier this month, it was fourth time lucky as he buried the demons of three previous major final defeats – two to Nadal at the French Open, and one to Djokovic at this year’s Australian Open – with a stunning comeback victory for the ages.

Trailing two sets to love after Zverev had burst out of the blocks, Thiem needed to do what hadn’t been done since the 2004 French Open if he was to finally climb tennis’ Mount Everest.

On that occasion, Gaston Gaudio lost the first set 6-0 and then dropped the second 6-3 before coming from absolutely nowhere to stun the red-hot favourite, and compatriot, Guillermo Coria, saving a match point before he prevailed 8-6.

In 63 subsequent majors since, not only had any man not come from two sets to love down to win in a major championship match, but every man who won in that period (Wimbledon 2004 all the way through to the 2020 Australian Open) were all born in the 1980s.

All of a sudden, Thiem roared back into the contest taking the third and fourth sets to force a one-set championship shootout as Zverev started to lose his focus on the match.

The first German man to reach a major final since Rainer Schuettler at the 2003 Australian Open, he was attempting to become his country’s first major men’s champion since Boris Becker won the 1996 Australian Open, and first in New York since Becker in 1989.

Dominic Thiem

Dominic Thiem (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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With the scores at two sets all, the Austrian broke Zverev’s serve to start the final set, but the German would break right back and games would remain on serve until the 23-year-old broke in the eighth game to put himself into the position to serve for the championship.

But with the finish line in sight, Zverev stumbled once more and was broken in the next game to put the set back on serve.

He would then get to within two points of the title at 5-4, but Thiem held for 5-all, then broke Zverev’s serve for the third time in the set to put himself into the position to serve for the title, only to be broken at the death as the German refused to wave the white flag.

And so, for the first time in US Open history, and for the second time in the last four majors (after Wimbledon last year), a tiebreak would be used to settle the outcome.

A pair of double faults from Zverev saw Thiem gain the upper hand, earning two championship points at 6-4, only for both to be wiped out due to successive unforced errors, including a forehand that went into the net.

At 6-all, Thiem earned a third championship point, and then fell onto his back in disbelief when Zverev put a backhand wide, ensuring he became his country’s first major champion since Thomas Muster won the 1995 French Open.

It marked the first time since 1949 that a man has come from two sets down to win at the US Open, and just the fifth time at any major in the Open Era (1968-present) and first outside of Roland Garros that a man has recovered from such a deficit to emerge victorious.

Significantly, the 27-year-old also became the first major men’s champion born in the 1990s, which was guaranteed when, as mentioned above, Novak Djokovic was defaulted from his fourth round match against Pablo Carreno Busta.

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By contrast, there have been ten female major champions, of which nine are still playing (Caroline Wozniacki retired after this year’s Australian Open, which she won in 2018), born in 1990 or later, with last year’s US Open champion Bianca Andreescu being born in 2000.

One of them – Naomi Osaka – joined the likes of the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova in winning three major titles before the age of 22, coming from a set and break down to defeat Victoria Azarenka to win her second US Open title in three years.

Things got off to a disastrous start for the Japanese star when she was broken in her first service game, as Azarenka, twice a runner-up at Flushing Meadows, won the opening set 6-1 in just 27 minutes.

The Belarusian, who was aiming to win her first major since claiming a pair of Australian Open titles in 2012 and 2013, then went up a break in the second set as she sought to put behind two losses to Serena Williams in two previous US Open finals.

Naomi Osaka plays a backhand

Naomi Osaka plays a backhand. (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)

But Osaka finally woke up, claiming six of the final seven games of the set to level the match at a set apiece and force a one-set championship shootout for the women’s title.

The 22-year-old established a break of serve in the fourth game of the final set and while Azarenka broke back three games later to make it 3-4, Osaka broke from 15-30* down in the eighth game and then served out the match to capture her second title at Flushing Meadows.

It marked the first time since 1994 that a woman has had to come from a set down to win the championship match in New York, while Osaka became the first woman since Jennifer Capriati at the turn of the century to win her first three major finals.

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Impressively, each time Osaka has reached the quarter-finals of a major, each time she has gone on to win.

Naturally, after the controversy of 2018 where Serena Williams’ mid-match behaviour overshadowed the post-match presentation and made headlines in the days that followed, Osaka would’ve wanted to acknowledge the crowd for supporting her right throughout the tournament.

But with fans barred from attending this year’s US Open, she could only acknowledge her coaching team and so did not get the chance to receive the recognition from the crowd she was wrongfully robbed of two years ago.

It means that she will have to wait until she wins her third title in New York so she can properly be acknowledged, but when that happens remains to be seen.

As for Azarenka, while the defeat marked a disappointing end to her tournament, just to make another major final after several years of struggle, during which she gave birth to a son and was involved in a custody battle over him, was still a victory in itself.

She had entered the championship match, her fifth in total after two each in 2012 and 2013, on the back of winning the Western andamp; Southern Open as well as defeating fifth seed Aryna Sabalenka and third seed Serena Williams en route to a third final in New York.

The Belarusian was also attempting to put an end to the longest drought between two major titles for a woman, the 31-year-old’s last title coming at the 2013 Australian Open where she came from a set down to defeat Li Na in the final.

She was also aiming to become the first mother in a decade to salute in New York, as well as anywhere since Kim Clijsters captured the 2011 Australian Open.

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Losing to Osaka is no shame, so Azarenka should be proud of what she has achieved this year, in particular all the hard work she has put in to get back to where she should be as she enters the twilight of her career.

The two-time Australian Open champion has broken back into the world’s top 20 for the first time in four years, and will be seeded at Roland Garros where her best results have been reaching the semi-finals in 2011 and 2013.

Osaka, meantime, will move back up to third in the world rankings, behind Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep.

Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka of Japan kisses the US Open championship trophy. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images for USTA)

And that’s all she wrote for the 2020 US Open, without doubt one of the most intriguing majors in recent history given the current state of affairs that has caused major economic and social disruption, and emptied out the stands at major sporting events worldwide.

Dominic Thiem and Naomi Osaka depart as worthy champions, not least the former whose victory could signal the changing of the guard in men’s tennis that we had all been anticipating.

It marked the first time since 2012 that both the men’s and women’s US Open finals have required a deciding set, while it was also the fourth straight major in which the men’s final was decided in five sets.

Normally, this would be the end of the Grand Slam tennis season, but the turn of events caused by COVID-19 caused the French Open, normally scheduled for May-June, to be rescheduled to later this month.

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The undisputed King of Clay, Rafael Nadal, will start as the hot favourite as he attempts to equal Roger Federer’s mark of 20 major titles, the most by a man in tennis history.

But while Federer will be absent, he now has some serious opposition in Thiem, who will head to Roland Garros a major champion for the first time and is expected to again feature at the pointy end of the tournament.

A full preview of contenders for the rescheduled clay court major will be provided next week.

Men’s championship result
[2] Dominic Thiem (AUT) defeated [5] Alexander Zverev (GER) 2–6, 4–6, 6–4, 6–3, 7–6 (8–6)

Women’s championship result
[4] Naomi Osaka (JPN) defeated Victoria Azarenka (BLR) 1–6, 6–3, 6–3