Error-strewn final will have Big Three licking their lips

Error-strewn final will have Big Three licking their lips

Morning all. My life in Mexico has taken a downturn today. I just visited my local fruit & veg shop and noticed, to my horror, that there was a big empty hole in the section that is usually filled with prickly pears. Prickly pears are one of the greatest joys about living in this country. They are sweet, juicy balls of flavour that are – crucially for a fruit – easily prepared and quickly consumed (who’s got time to chop and skin a pineapple every morning?).

Part of what makes them so wonderful, I think, is the fact that they are only available for a few months a year. Their sparsity adds to the mystique, sending me into an uncontrollable frenzy when they appear in June and a spiraling depression once they are gone by September.

Thankfully, I have a pretty great sporting weekend to look back on to soothe my prickly pear blues this morning. Australia’s cricketers managed to expertly balls up a winning position to lose the second ODI against England, setting up an intriguing series decider on Wednesday. Arsenal kicked off the new Premier League season with a comfortable 3-0 win away at Fulham, before Spurs lost at home to Everton. And men’s tennis has a new Grand Slam champion as Dominic Thiem overcame great friend Sascha Zverev in five sets to win the US Open.

Last night’s final at Flushing Meadows was one of the strangest matches of tennis I’ve ever seen. I’m sure the fact that there were no spectators present played a part, but both Thiem and Zverev seemed so subdued throughout. Neither appeared to be particularly bothered about the fact that they had an opportunity to win their first major title, something that they have been working towards throughout their tennis careers. Unforced errors were flowing from the strings of both racquets and there wasn’t so much as a whimper from either corner until Zverev’s “Come On!” after breaking back to level the scores early in the fifth set.

In the build-up to the match, some commentators were suggesting that this was a passing of the baton. For the first time since 2014, a Grand Slam final was being contested without one of Djokovic, Federer or Nadal. Indeed, neither of them even featured in the semifinals. At 33-years-old, Djokovic is the youngest of that trio and this surely marked the start of the changing of the guard.

On last night’s evidence, that couldn’t be further from the truth. It was refreshing to have a couple of new faces in a major final, but the level that was on show in Arthur Ashe stadium last night was nowhere near what we have seen from the Big Three in the past.

Let’s choose last year’s Wimbledon final between Djokovic and Federer, a match that will be remembered more for the drama than for its level of play, as a random example. There were a combined 148 winners in that final and 114 unforced errors. Last night, those figures were 95 and 120 respectively. Indeed Federer, who lost the 2019 final, hit 94 winners on his own – just one fewer than Thiem and Zverev managed collectively yesterday.

There were 23 double faults last night, compared to just 15 in last year’s Wimbledon final, despite the fact that there were 100 more points played in total in southwest London. I could go on, but the point is that the next generation remains incapable of producing the required level – over five sets and on the biggest stage – to knock Djokovic & co off their perch. The Big Three will be licking their lips and, fitness permitting, will be expecting to continue their dominance at the slams for a few more years to come.

Its also worth pointing out that neither Thiem nor Zverev defeated any of the Big Three en route to the final. Federer and Nadal were absent from the tournament with injury and coronavirus-related fears respectively, while Djokovic defeated himself when he accidentally hit a line judge with a stray ball in the fourth round. So it’s not as if last night’s finalists were exhausted after coming through epic five -set semifinals against one of those guys, after which a dip in form would have been understandable.

There was one moment in particular that summed up the occasion for me. At match-point down in the fifth-set tiebreak, Zverev hit a 68 mph second serve. 68 mph? There were second-serves hit at my local club this weekend that were more venomous than that. Admittedly the German had already hit two double faults in the tie-break and was probably terrified of losing the match on another. But it is still an unbelievably timid serve given the situation. Even more amazingly, Zverev got away with it. Thiem just lobbed the return back into the centre of the court and the two began another pitty-patty rally.

I was so surprised because I know that both are capable of playing much better tennis. Thiem was exceptional in defeating Nadal at the Australian Open this year and Djokovic in last year’s French Open. The Austrian enjoys a 5-2 record against Federer. Zverev, meanwhile, has beaten both Djokovic and Federer in Masters 1000 finals and was brilliant in overpowering the Serb to comfortably win the ATP Finals in 2018. Both are established Top 5 players and I expected them to bring that level to the court last night. But it just didn’t happen.

Perhaps, then, it was the weight of expectation that dragged them down? Thiem, who admitted in the post-match press conference that both players looked “nervous”, has been in three previous major finals, but each time he was the underdog against Djokovic and Nadal. Last night, for the first time, he was expected to win. And Zverev, in his first final, must have known how lucky he was to have the chance to win a slam without playing one of the Big Three.

I think I’m going to stop there. I’ve rambled on for 1,000 words and I’m still no closer to really understanding what I saw last night and what it means going forward. But I will say this: on last night’s evidence, and despite not having played for six months, Nadal remains heavy favourite to win his 13th French Open in a few weeks.

Right, have a great start to the week everyone and I’ll be back here on Wednesday.