US Open: Thiem joins champions, Osaka confirms status

  • Matt Trollope

For Naomi Osaka and Dominic Thiem, their victories at the 2020 US Open felt like definitive moments of coronation.

Thiem, long identified as the ATP player closest to breaking through for his first Grand Slam title, did just that in New York on Sunday with a five-set victory over Alexander Zverev.

A day earlier, Osaka had won her second US Open title, and third Grand Slam trophy overall, with a three-set triumph over a resurgent Victoria Azarenka.

RELATED: Osaka wins third major title at US Open

Tennis now exists at a point in time when the 'Big Four' of Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – legends with a staggering combined tally of 79 Grand Slam singles titles – are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning.

They are far from done - three of those four will be back on the major title hunt at the French Open later this month, and Federer will complete the quartet when he returns following surgery at the Australian Open in January.

But their task will be that bit more difficult following the US Open, and the crowning of two rivals who will only get stronger.

“It's going to be, or I expect that it's going to be, easier for me now in the biggest tournaments."
Dominic Thiem

The women’s game is already experiencing a shift, led by the 22-year-old Osaka.

She has eclipsed Williams – who fell in the semifinals – as the world’s highest-paid female athlete and is emerging as a transcendent star in her own right, based on the reaction to her latest US Open victory and the coverage of her increasing political activism.

Osaka has separated herself from the pack of similarly-aged Grand Slam champions including Ash Barty, Bianca Andreescu, Sofia Kenin and Jelena Ostapenko, who to this point each own one major title.

Of active players, just three – Serena and Venus Williams, and Kim Clijsters – have won more Slams than Osaka. Yet they are aged 38, 40 and 37 respectively.

The Japanese star has established herself as the game’s current best big-match player, one who is undefeated in Slam finals and who invariably wins a major tournament if she reaches the quarterfinals.

“During quarantine I wanted to set myself up to possibly win this tournament. I felt like I just worked so hard, I wanted to give myself an opportunity,” said Osaka, who trailed Azarenka 6-1 2-0 before staging a remarkable comeback.

“In the first set I was so nervous. I think I could have easily faded away, but I really wanted to fight, just compete.

“Honestly, there wasn't really another thought in my mind. I wasn't really thinking about winning, I was just thinking about competing. 

“Somehow I ended up with the trophy.”

Thiem's time?

It was an almost identical situation for Thiem, who like Osaka suffered from nerves in a slow start against Zverev before recovering.

Yet it was precisely the thought of winning that contributed to those nerves.

Had he lost, Thiem would have slipped to 0-4 in major finals. But this one would have stung more, given that for the first time, one of those aforementioned tennis legends was not blocking his path.

Neither Nadal or Federer – the latter recovering from surgery – had made the trip to New York, while Djokovic was defaulted in the fourth round.

“I wanted this title so much, and of course there was also in my head that if I lose this one, it's 0-4. It's always in your head. Is this chance ever coming back again? This, that, all these thoughts, which are not great to play your best tennis, to play free,” Thiem admitted.

“It's going to be, or I expect that it's going to be, easier for me now in the biggest tournaments. 

“Until today there was still a big part, a big goal missing. With this goal achieved, I think and I hope that I'm going to be a little bit more relaxed and play a little bit more freely at the biggest events.”

RELATED: Thiem breaks through for first Slam at US Open

More major titles seem certain for the Austrian, in much the same way Osaka has begun accumulating them.

Thiem is six years younger than Djokovic, the player he almost beat in the AO 2020 final. He is seven years younger than Nadal, against whom he continues to make strides on clay, and a player he defeated in Melbourne. And he has won five of seven career meetings with Federer, a player 12 years older.

At the other end of the spectrum, Thiem conquered four rising stars – Felix Auger-Aliassime, Alex de Minaur, Daniil Medvedev and Zverev – in his final four matches in New York.

Thiem and Osaka have ensured that the fight for the biggest prizes in tennis is only going to get tougher.