No asterisk needed as Thiem proves a worthy grand slam champion

And so, at long last, a major title for tennis’s Generation Next, those ageing heirs apparent who have stood around at grand slam tournaments like customers in the queue at a busy delicatessen without a number.

Patience is a virtue that has been mercilessly imposed upon these be-sneakered bridesmaids by their three ruthless masters.

So the four hours and two minutes it took Dominic Thiem to beat Alexander Zverev 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 7-6(8/6) in an arduous, enervating and inevitably engrossing US Open final should have seemed like a twinkling.

Although try telling that to Thiem and Zverev as they staggered through the gripping final moments of an instant epic; Thiem fighting cramp as he put the finishing touches to his gut-wrenching comeback over his almost equally fatigued friend.

Regardless of the quality or the width, some will remain determined to remember the first COVID-era men’s major for its absences.

None of the Big Three in the final, no chattering New York fans and, until that dramatic deciding set, little of the throbbing intensity and distraction that those familiar factors create.

But in becoming the first male grand slam singles champion born in the 1990s, Thiem belied the popular suggestion that a major title must be prised from the iron grip of one of the game’s great champions to have currency.

Instead of a Big Three scalp, Thiem’s crowning feat is to be just the fifth player in the open era to come from two sets down to win a major final, and the first at the US Open in 71 years.

Alexander Zverev wearing a white shirt and pink headband pumps his fist.Alexander Zverev wearing a white shirt and pink headband pumps his fist.
Alexander Zverev raced to a two-set lead before Thiem turned the tide.(AP: Frank Franklin II)

Thus Thiem endured the grinding seven-match best-of-five-sets grand slam format that demands you eliminate every obstacle that stands in your way. Even if for Thiem the most imposing appeared in his shaving mirror on the morning of the match.

If the Big Three have diminished hope for their would-be successors, they have also dampened expectation. Those who play them usually get a free swing.

But the second-seeded Thiem this time turned up with the weight of heavy favouritism and found the burden so crushing that, in the first two sets, his usually dancing feet could not even work up a half-hearted hokey-pokey.

While the little man on Thiem’s shoulder seemed to be screaming into his ear that he had an opportunity of a lifetime, Zverev turned nagging doubts into lost games with a brilliant early bombardment.

At 198cm, Zverev is the prototype of the hulking, spit-ball-serving giant who was supposed to dominate the game when the locker room card tables were replaced by a bench-press machines.

But the artfulness and supreme mentality of the enduring champions proved you need to bring more to the grand slam table than a muscle shirt and a cannonball serve.

After a slow start, pair deliver a worthy final

Zverev brought to this final a net-rushing game plan that maximised the impact of his big serve and crushing groundstrokes while amplifying Thiem’s self-doubts.

In a blink, Thiem was two sets down and standing so far behind the baseline to receive serve that, in a normal year, an usher might have asked to see his ticket.

This was the first moment that will define Thiem’s title. The others came after he had clawed his way back to two sets all. and a mildly entertaining final gradually became a match easily worthy of the historic title.

Dominic Thiem grimaces as he returns a shot.Dominic Thiem grimaces as he returns a shot.
Dominic Thiem was the second seed coming into the tournament.(AP: Frank Franklin II)

Yes, nerves played a part in Zverev’s inability to finish out the match at 5-3 in the final set as his once booming serve became a nervy twitch. But so too did the laser-like forehand passes with which Thiem dug himself out of his grand slam grave.

That the 27-year-old Thiem’s victory is viewed as the same kind of celebration of the vigour of youth as Boris Becker’s first Wimbledon title when aged just 17 says something of the Cocoon effect Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have had on the game.

Thiem was the first new male major champion since Marin Cilic won the 2014 US Open. Andy Murray, then a member of the now-disbanded Big Four, was the only other to seize the most significant silverware in that period.

Accordingly some will attach the dreaded asterisk to Thiem’s title. They will be wrong to do so.

Federer and Nadal chose not to play this US Open; Djokovic chose to carelessly slap a ball that hit a lineswoman. The Big Three were not bound and tied and held and held at gunpoint in the locker room.

Although, like the wannabe comedian Rupert Pupkin in the classic Martin Scorsese film King of Comedy, you could not have blamed Thiem, Zverev and the other young champions-in-waiting had they taken such drastic action in their desperation to be king for a night.

You can also scroll your way through the Australian Open records, particularly, if you want to start getting picky about whether Thiem’s title is a legitimate entry on the grand slam honour roll.

There is that period where Brian Teacher and Roscoe Tanner and, yes, the last Australian winner Mark Edmondson won titles against depleted fields.

Are you going to look Big Edo in the moustache and tell him he isn’t a genuine grand slam champion because Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg couldn’t be bothered missing Christmas dinner at home to play an Australian Open that started at Kooyong on Boxing Day?

After surviving an ordeal fit for any grand slam there is no need to ask Thiem either.