New generation rises: Thiem and Osaka capture US Open titles in face of COVID-19

Pavan Pandurangi and Ryan Zheng

With the absence of 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer and reigning champion Rafael Nadal, the 2020 US Open highlighted many young players over the action-packed fortnight. Notable competitors like Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem flew through the draw, passing players such as Novak Djokovic, current number one and heavy favorite for the title. Along with these emerging names came the return of past Grand Slam champions Victoria Azarenka and Kim Clijsters, two big entries in the women’s draw that sent shockwaves through the tennis world. As the two weeks progressed with COVID-19 looming in the background, both draws began to thin out as the eventual champions rose to the top.

The first four rounds of the men’s side surprised fans, as many top players found themselves packing their bags. The night before the first round, Frenchman Benoit Paire tested positive for COVID-19 and was forced to withdraw from the tournament altogether. A few nights later, in a thrilling five-set match (6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-3, 7-6 (3)), an unseeded Steve Johnson defeated 16th-seed John Isner. Furthermore, first seed Novak Djokovic found himself out of the tournament after a fourth round match disqualification against Pablo Carreño Busta. Djokovic, angry with himself after losing a point, launched a ball towards the wall that hit a standing line judge. The line judge keeled over in pain, and Djokovic was defaulted with the match that went to eventual semi-finalist Carreño Busta.

The women’s draw was no different in the early rounds, as top seeds got knocked out by rising underdogs. 10th seed Garbine Muguruza found herself out in the second round of the tournament to Tsvetana Pironkova (7-5, 6-3). In addition, seventh-seed Madison Keys was forced to retire due to injury in the second round and world number 45 Caroline Garcia triumphed over first-seed Karolina Pliskova (6-1, 7-6 (2)). On the other hand, key players such as returning two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka and fourth seed Naomi Osaka breezed through the draw, passing top players such as second-seed Sofia Kenin and the Williams sisters to set up the exciting final rounds of the tournament.

In the men’s bracket, fifth seed Zverev cruised past the 27-seed, Borna Coric, after dropping a one-sided first set to set up a match with Carreño Busta. Zverev dominated the service game, cranking 24 aces to Carreño Busta’s four. Despite dropping the first two sets, Zverev clinched the match after gaining breaks in the last three sets, sending him to the first Grand Slam final of his young career. On the other side of the draw, second seed Thiem advanced past both youngster Alex De Minaur and last year’s runner up Daniil Medvedev in straight sets to enter his fourth Grand Slam championship match. 

Fourth seed Osaka cemented herself in the books after earning two consecutive Grand Slams, and she continued to display her skills, swiftly finishing her quarterfinal matchup against Shelby Rogers in straight sets. After seven years of personal turmoil and unsuccessful strides on the court, veteran Azarenka returned to the second week of a Grand Slam, earning wins over two seeded players during the quarterfinals and semifinals to reach the championship match. Azarenka beat archrival and third seed Serena Williams in a grueling three-setter to enter the finals against Osaka.

Thiem began the five-set stunner by dropping the first two sets, struggling to hold a majority of his service games. Zverev capitalized on Thiem’s slowness on the court to seize the first two sets, giving up six games during the process. Down a break in the third set, Thiem won crucial points on Zverev’s serve, eventually leading him to take it 6-4. The fourth set ended in a swift manner, with Thiem able to manage Zverev’s service game during key points in the set. This match marked the fourth straight men’s Grand Slam final that spanned five sets. At this point, Zverev and Thiem began cramping, leading both to wear out as the final set approached a tiebreak. Thiem held on in the final points of the match due to Zverev’s lackluster serving, granting him his first Grand Slam title. 

On the women’s side of the tournament, Azarenka comfortably held the first set, dropping only a game. However, Osaka began converting break points in the final two sets, granting her a second US Open title.

Despite the fact that tennis fans watched this year’s US Open on their television screens, the tournament highlighted that the athletes were willing to play in adverse conditions to compete and entertain. Djokovic’s surprising exit, Thiem’s ultimate first Grand Slam title, and Azarenka’s career comeback all signaled that the tennis world is evolving, introducing new champions and bringing back lost faces. The French Open qualifying matches have already begun, and the main draw will commence on Sept. 27, with Nadal hoping to tie Federer’s Grand Slam record.