He began by choking and ended with a cramp; in the great scheme of things, or at least a single tennis match, Dominic Thiem played clutch.
It is fitting that in the men’s and women’s singles draws at this year’s U.S. Open the winners came back from the edge of defeat. Is this not the story of this dreary and scary year in many realms, including most organized sports? It seemed, still does sometimes. Even New York, an engine that moves the world, has been on the brink of closing down.
The city was hit by a spike in infections from the COVID-19 disease that turned it into the “epicenter” of the epidemic, upgraded to pandemic status by United Nations health officials who had played down its risks and lied about its source. The mayor of New York City and the governor of New York state, who until March assured their voters and neighbors all was well, reversed themselves and ordered emergency measures, which among other things ravaged businesses, caused half a million people to move out while nursing homes for the aged were contaminated when ordered to make room for infected patients. Stadia at the U.S. Open Billie Jean King Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows, in Queens, were turned into emergency field hospitals.
New York in the late spring began to reopen. Restaurants put their tables out of doors and kept spaces wide between them. Inventiveness in the delivery business went full innovative, hi-tech and lo (computers and bicycles), as ordering-in exploded even while commerce reopened with precautionary protocols. Visitors from states infected at high rates were required to quarantine for 14 days. The U.S. Open maintained the position it took early in the emergency: “Be Open,” the venerable USTA insisted. In July it confirmed the show was on, without spectators and with remote media coverage, except for skeleton broadcast crews, medics, and coaches.
Dominic Thiem cut a swathe through the draw like a musketeer, slicing and slashing with elegance and precision, muttering to himself, yelling when mad in the direction of his team, led by the Argentine tennis star Nicola “el Vampiro” Mahut. On his way to the final he only lost one set, to 2014 champ Marin Cilic, in the second round. In the semifinal he beat Daniil Medvedev, five-set finalist last year against Rafa Nadal.
Thiem, who is 27 and is from Neustadt near Vienna, plays with a fiery game that cannot fail to remind observers of the man of Manacor. Neither ever saw a shot he does not reflexively assume he can reach no matter where and at what velocity it hits the 29 by 13 feet he guards like a hawk. Both men have a shot-placement precision designed to give work to the groundsmen who refreshen the white lines that mark the court boundaries. They both sweat profusely. The strokes are different: Nadal uses two hands on the backhand, the shot pioneered by Jimmy Connors; Thiem uses a big open one-hander, aesthetically pleasing as Stan Wawrinka’s or Richard Gasquet’s or Dudi Sela’s.
Medvedev was expected to be a contender this year; Nadal, who beat Thiem in two French Open finals, 2018 and ’19, decided not to attend, citing health concerns; Novak Djokovic, who beat Thiem in a formidable Australian Open final at Melbourne in January, was disqualified for court behavior unbecoming or reckless in the third round. Andy Murray played a fantastic come-from-behind five-set first round, but, exhausted, went down in three to the rising young Canadian star Felix Auger-Aliassime, whom Thiem in turn beat a round or two later. Roger Federer was out following knee surgery. Could anyone stop Thiem?
As in many other human activities, in tennis you learn to do things the right way by doing them over and over, in accordance with the wisdom and the methods taught by the masters who preceded you. You learn to be successful and to win by adapting the right way to your way, which includes understanding the ways of the times in which you live.
“You must accept the unexpected,” observes Ana Gabriela Torres, who on the Hofstra varsity (the mighty Pride) showed that John McEnroe and Jared Donaldson are not the last words in New York region tennis and through her good-natured, funny, generous, patient instruction on the playgrounds of lower Manhattan, notably the Washington Market Park on Chambers between the cobbles of Greenwich Street and the freeway grade macadam of West Street, she represents the city’s resilience and its unstoppable future.
Serena Williams was in complete control, perfectly composed, in her semi against Victoria Azarenka, whom she denied victory in two previous U.S. Open finals, and who seemed intimidated and hesitant in the first set.
But she roared back in the second and began hitting her famous winners to the lines, from either side, with uncanny repetition. She did what she had learned and knew, adapting it to her best great friend’s power and energy. A kind of jiu-jitsu? Use the image you want, Miss Williams could not handle it. This is, Miss Torres notes, a matter of many factors that may be obvious or may be mysterious, but they are why no tennis player ever takes a match for granted, no matter who is on the other side of the net.
Dom never does, and certainly not Sascha. Alexander Zverev, all six-six of him and hitting his first serve typically at 135 mph and with a soft-handed touch at the net (this means he places the ball over like a surgeon and even the fastest sprinter cannot reach it), came from two sets down in the semis against a Pablo Carreño Busta, who had been all grit and brains in a comparable performance against Denis Shapovalov.
Against Zverev, for the first time in two weeks, Thiem choked. For two sets he was, there is no other way to put it, unrecognizable, as the mighty young man from the German north (born 23 years ago in Hamburg, viz. Buddenbrooks) completely disrupted his game.
Composure is the word Miss Torres offers her students. Play your game, but adapt as needed. What Miss Azarenka managed to do to Miss Williams even as Miss Williams was, to be sure, doing it to herself, Naomi Osaka, 2018 champion (over Miss Williams) and big favorite here, did to her a match later. Timid, tight is the term tennis players use, in the first set, she said she felt embarrassed at the thought of losing a final in less than an hour and, about three games into the second, and let it rip. Pushed back, and back, and back again, Miss Azarenka, an admirably courageous young lady from Minsk, currently locked in a showdown between the communist-style dictator Alexander Lukashenko and the people, the people yes (viz. Carl Sandburg), did not have the answers to the Osaka onslaught.
Which when it works is very much like Serena’s, minus the high-powered serve and the fierce personality. Miss Osaka has a good serve all right, but it does not hit at 120 mph in the corner, at least not with Miss Williams’ consistency. And her composure is calm, like a — well, a bien-élevée Japanese girl’s, in fact. Which she is, with Hispaniola in her, too, but not Miss Torres’s paella, rather the French-African gumbo that, face it, did not do such a great job on the other side of the island. Well, the New World, whachagonnado? Miss Osaka’s parents, whom she loves and always mentions in interviews, as she does her Haitian grandmother, raised her in, of course, New York, before moving to warmer climates for tennistic reasons among others. She now lives in Los Angeles.
But that is neither here nor there. This is New York (viz. E. B. White). Thiem was on the brink of elimination, like Boston against New York in the 2004 ALCS, and you remember what happened. The jinx, the curse of the Bambino, was back, they thought — but they believed. They held on. The spirit of New York is not unique to New York.
When they got to the fifth set, he was controlling, dictating is the term, even as Sascha’s almost unthinkable serve was weakening and not only becoming thinkable, but readable. Thiem had him then. And then he cramped.
In tennis, this is not, as Miss Torres would say, unexpected. You can be the most fit man in Queens, but after two weeks of tennis and, in this particular match, run 17,000 feet over four hours, it can happen to anyone. Thiem insisted after the match it was mental, not physical — “years since I’ve had cramps,” said he — which is not unexpected either, at this level of training and all. Unless the leg turns to rubber and he falls down, the word is: Play on — or (my guess) spielen.
You can look it up (viz. Ring Lardner, or Thurber). Basically, either Sascha just did not have enough gas left in the tank to take advantage, or he was too much the gentleman, or Dominic was just too shrewd and managed to use what weapons he had left to hang in until, at 7-6 in the first fifth set tiebreak in a U.S. Open men’s final, the right shot, or the wrong one — it was a crosscourt backhand on Thiem’s service — sailed out of bounds.
The mental blends with the physical, and in New York, the spiritual blends with the material. Will the city emerge, wounded but still itself, when the epidemic recedes? The USTA certainly did its best to make it seem likely. The lunar emptiness at the stadia was fearsome, but the players and a staff that was doing all it could to look normal, under the leadership of the kind of managerial and medical can-do types who you wonder why they are not running the city and the state and even the country, and this is not to promote the tyranny of the technocrats but to plead for sensible, compassionate, but rule-enforcing — those boundaries, on courts and on behavior — humans. New Yorkers.
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