The US Open championship is over and the winner was not, I repeat, was not one of the big three (Federer, Djokovic, or Nadal)! The 2020 US Open champion is Dominic Thiem, not quite a young gun, but a younger gun by the age standards of this era of pro tennis – at 27 years of age. Yes, Thiem’s breakthrough to his first grand slam victory is monumental, however, it is still only a glimpse into the future of men’s pro tennis.
Let’s zoom out and analyze how this year’s US Open faired to previous years. Due to COVID-19, the 2020 US Open looked a little different. In fact, it was a miracle that it even got off the ground at all. Similar to the NBA, the tournament was held in a bubble as Flushing Meadows hosted the Western & Southern Open, usually held in Cincinnati just a week prior to the US Open. There were no fans in the stadiums, ball boys wore masks, racquets tapped rather than a handshake after a good match, one could say the tournament was a ghost of its former self. More importantly, the draw did not have as deep of a playing field and also saw the disqualification of this year’s favorite and world number one, Novak Djokovic. Apart from the Djoker, many notable players inside the top 50 opted out of playing this year such as Nadal, Federer, Monfils, Fognini, Wawrinka, Nishikori, etc. It’s hard to say, had all the usual suspects participated, if this year’s tournament would’ve yielded the same result with Thiem as the champion.
Another reason we should be wary of young guns taking the throne of pro tennis so soon is the actual play in the later stages of the US Open, particularly the final. In the final, Thiem and Zverev had only 95 winners to a whopping 120 unforced errors, including a total of 23 double faults from the two players. In the final set tiebreaker, both players were visibly very tight, hitting lots of slices and slower-paced shots while being riddled with random errors. The match ended in anticlimactic fashion when Zverev hit a backhand well wide on just the fourth shot of the rally. The quality of play was overall low and neither player seemed to be able to seize the moment and close in on the title until Thiem finally prevailed. In the same situations, we’ve seen Nada, Djokovic and Federer tidy up their games when it mattered most and play some of the most spectacular tennis ever seen.
With Rafa’s return to defend and win his 13th French Open title, Djokovic still at world number one and in peak form and other top players returning to play, the opportunity for breakthroughs does not look nearly as wide open for younger players as was the case at the US Open. For the first time in a major championship, all eight quarterfinalists at the US Open were players born in the 1990s. Younger players going deeper in the slam and Thiem hoisting the trophy has proven that it can be done, however, the true test lies in veterans gradually re-entering the sport at the biggest stages. It is promising to see a recent surge of success among the younger players and they will undoubtedly have their own era of tennis down the road, just not quite yet.