Dominic Thiem of Austria, the No. 2 seed, survived two sets of brilliant play by his opponent, and battled through leg cramps at the end of the US Open Men’s final to win his first major championship, defeating Alexander Zverev of Germany who was the No. 5 seed, 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6. In the Women’s title round that was contested the day before, Naomi Osaka of Japan, the No. 4 seed, won her third Grand Slam trophy as she edged an unseeded, but revitalized Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.
Both finals provided us with a rich panorama of memories. Cinema fans surely remember the goofy 1985 pseudo-sci-fi movie in which Marty McFly, the character played by Michael J. Fox, time travels back to 1955. McFly is able to do so because of the magical talents of his friend Doctor Emmett “Doc” Brown, a wonderfully bizarre scientist and inventor, (Christopher Lloyd), who had created a DeLorean automobile that made that trip possible. Of course, the DeLorean has long since left the track, but these four individuals still remain.
Using snippets from stories gleaned from our files, we will offer a glimpse of what Thiem, Zverev, Osaka and Azarenka were like when they were younger. It will be an entertaining “back in time” adventure that begins where they began – at least in tennis time.
We first watched Thiem play in the tiny, shoebox sized Court No. 2 at Stade Roland Garros in 2011. He lost 3–6, 6–3, 8–6 to Bjorn Fratangelo in the Junior Boys final. (The victory happened to be the first for an American junior in Paris since 1977 when John McEnroe claimed the prize.)
In the story written for Florida’s Naples Daily News titled “French Open: Naples’ Bjorn Fratangelo wins Boys Final” on June 5, 2011, the champion said, “The whole match I played really well, and so did he. The level was really high.” I pointed out, Fratangelo won 94 points compared to his opponent’s 86 in the two-hour, seven-minute match. (The final set took almost half the time they spent on court.) The real story was how well he remained focused on a rain-threatening day. Thiem, whose favorite surface is red clay, was tough and not afraid to go after shots. He spent much of the match parked well behind the baseline. It almost seemed like he was retrieving Fratangelo’s shots from across the street in the Bois de Boulogne.
Even though Thiem was defeated it was clear that he was a star in the making. Later that June, he made a winning transition to grass when he defeated Dennis Kovikov of the US in the Gerry Weber Open Junior final in Halle (Westfalen), Germany. Four years later (2015), Alexander Zverev made his Halle debut, having been touted as the second coming of Boris Becker.
In June of 2018, Cheryl wrote “The Evolution of Alexander Zverev at Roland Garros” for Ubitennis. In the feature she said, The first time I was aware of Alexander Zverev, he was 18. He was a gangly 6’6” tall. He likely weighed about 165 pounds as long as he had a few rocks in his pockets. (Well, maybe not rocks, but some sort of poundage that was not there before he donned his tennis clothing.)
Over the twenty-five years the GWO has been in existence, many German players have been given an opportunity to show their tennis talents to their compatriots. (The GWO is the tournament that Roger Federer has signed a promise to attend for the rest of his professional career.) The brightest star seems to have been Zverev, who has a catchy nickname, ‘Sascha’, likely as a rhyming accompaniment to his brother’s name or perhaps to distinguish him from his father who shares the name Alexander. Mischa Zverev, who also plays on the tour, is ten years older. His father was his coach. (The elder Alexander played professional tennis for the Soviet Union. In 1991 the family relocated to Hamburg, Germany.)
He has spent his years on the tour steadily climbing the ladder of tennis success with his ranking now at No. 3 in the world. His rise in the professional tennis world is in a word – meteoric. Because Federer chose not to compete in Paris, Zverev is seeded number 2 at Roland Garros. At age 21 years 51 days at the end of the tournament, if he could manage to win, he would be the youngest Grand Slam men’s singles champion since Juan Martin Del Potro who won the US Open at 20 years 355 days. Even though clay is not his best surface, he now has two wins notched on his belt at Roland Garros after today’s defeat of Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, 2-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2.
Zverev’s play in Paris wasn’t a fluke. He had a miraculous year. He warmed up by winning titles in Munich and Madrid. He reached the final in Rome and the semifinals at Monte Carlo. He lost to Nadal in Rome, where his thirteen match winning streak finally came to an end. He reached the final at Miami, where he lost to American, John Isner.
A lot has changed for Zverev since I first marveled at the gangly young man who had such nice strokes. He’s filled out a bit – just enough to be impressive and not gangly any more. He’s not a teenager and his wonderment at all that professional tennis encompasses has steadied.
He is definitely on the right track now. He has proved that indeed, success has come. There’s more than just a game on the line. There’s the realization of dreams and hopes that are supported by hard work and talent and a good deal of innate ability, and a little bit of serendipity.
Annually, we travel to Europe to cover Roland Garros, Gerry Weber Open (Halle) and Wimbledon. Having made the trip for so many years we always prepare a Jones/Winters “kit” containing winter cold and blistering summer hot clothing, along with the appropriate shoes to deal with the swings in the weather. Another “Always” is a player “To Watch” list with the names of competitors that could become “Unknown Up To Now, But…”
Prior to Paris in 2016, because of the success she had enjoyed at the beginning of the year, Naomi Osaki was at the top of our list. She was an intriguing Haitian/Japanese amalgamation, born in Japan, but she had grown up and trained in Florida. She was five feet, ten inches tall and would turn 19 in October. From what we had learned, in interviews, she was a cautious conversationalist, actually embarrassingly shy but on court she was an aggressive, though somewhat tactically unwise, ball striker.
In her Roland Garros debut, she won two matches that would be her only victories on Terre Battue that season. Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia fell to Osaka 6-4, 7-5 and Mirjana Lučić-Baroni of Croatia, a long time Florida resident, succumbed 6-3, 6-3. In the third round she won the first set, 6-4 against Simona Halep of Romania, before the more experienced No. 6 seed became more disciplined and wrapped up the match 6-2, 6-3.
The cramped (and crammed) US Open’s Media Center, forced us to do a number of “Trash Can Interviews” over the years. We first spoke with Victoria Azarenka standing next to a trash receptacle in 2005, just after her International Tennis Federation Junior Girls’ Doubles Grand Slam bid came to an end. After winning the Australian with Marina Erakovic of New Zealand then Roland Garros and Wimbledon with Ágnes Szávay of Hungary. Erakovic, her partner in New York, sustained an injury which forced the duo to give Olga Govortsova of Belarus and Bibiane Schoofs of the Netherlands a walkover in the quarterfinals.
We were thoroughly impressed by her presence and for someone who had just turned 16 (on the last day of July), she was extremely poised. Talking about the walkover, she didn’t complain or blame. She admitted being a “bit” disappointed but was now even more motivated to win the singles title. After beginning the year, defeating Szávay, 6-2, 6-2 in the Australian Girls’ final, she went on to down Alexa Glatch of the US, 6-3, 6-4 in the US Girls’ championship round. With the victory, Azarenka became the 2005 International Tennis Federation No. 1 Junior Girls’ player in the world.
In “Not All Bluster”, appearing in Core Tennis June 7, 2008, we wrote, Victoria Azarenka and Bob Bryan, No. 3, defeated Katarina Srebotnik and Nenad Zimonjic, No. 1, 6-2, 7-6 for Mixed Doubles honors. For Bryan, the taller and left-handed member of the twin (Mike is his brother) world’s No. 1 doubles team, it was his fourth Grand Slam Mixed Doubles title, but his first at Roland Garros. Azarenka added to her 2007 US Open Mixed collection, which she won with Belarus countryman Max Mirnyi.
Azarenka and Bryan had signed up for the competition just ‘two minutes’ before the close of the entry deadline. A short telephone exchange followed by a race to the ‘sign-up’ turned out to be a great move on Bryan’s part. ‘Victoria’s pretty clutch, and especially yesterday. I knew she was good, but I didn’t know she was this good,’ he had said. ‘So, I thank my agent, John Tobias, for convincing me to play with her.’ He added, ‘That 8-all point was huge. She threaded the needle on some ridiculous shots. She was coming up big at the end of the breakers all week’
In a Roland Garros Story-Tennis “A Game of Chance Perhaps” published on May 28, 2015 for Tennisballs.com, Cheryl wrote, Victoria Azarenka was Viktoria when I first met her. Somewhere along the line, the “k” became a “c”. She now lives in Monaco, but she originally came from Belarus. That first interview was ten years ago when she was about fifteen; she had won the Australian Open Junior Championships and later that same year she triumphed in Flushing Meadow at the US Open Junior Championships.
When we met, Azarenka had been living in Arizona with Belarusian NHL player, Nikolai Khabibulin and his wife who were friends of her mother’s. She was perky and shy all at the same time. She spoke excellent English and impressed me with her thoughtful behavior and a genuine “go-get-’em” attitude. Then, she was just a kid who seemed to be on the right track. Her plan was to become a big time tennis player. That plan worked out quite well. There have been a few detours, but the direction is essentially clear now, despite injuries that have kept some of the plans in abeyance. Undeterred, she keeps plugging away. Azarenka’s career has blossomed. She has won the Australian Open twice; finished 2012 ranked number one in the world; stayed at number one for 51 weeks.
In “Zverev Practically Mute”, that appeared in “Gerry Weber Open ‘Tidbits” (Ubitennis on June 20, 2018), I called attention to his quick mind and wonderful sense of humor saying, Normally, Alexander Zverev of Germany is loquacious in interviews. At Roland Garros, this year, after scoring a five-set second round win over Dusan Lajovic of Serbia, he asked a journalist, who had posed a question, ‘Where are you from buddy?’ When he was told, ‘Yorkshire in England’, Zverev left everyone in hysterics after he joked, ‘Nice. If they ever hold a tournament there, I’m coming just because of that accent. I love it. I didn’t understand a word you’re saying, but it is not important’.
A year later, on June 21, 2019, in “Surprises Abound In Halle Today”, Cheryl wrote for Ubitennis, David Goffin of Belgium vanquished the last German player in the Noventi Open late this afternoon in Halle. Alexander Zverev gave it his all, but it just wasn’t enough. The match lasted two hours and sixteen minutes. A Tie-Break decided it all in the third set 3-6, 6-1, 7-6. Actually, Goffin isn’t a surprising winner, but Zverev, known as ‘Sascha’, isn’t usually a loser. The partisan crowd was disappointed by their countryman’s loss but gave Goffin a well-deserved show of appreciation after the final ball was struck.
Zverev’s after-match interview contained what I would term a group of staccato answers. The responses seemed to be terse. There were many very pointed questions. German journalists asked specifically about his attitude and the negative bent of those questions seemed to elicit defensive, almost verging on avoidance, answers. I asked the only question in English when I inquired about his momentum. I suggested that he may have lost some of his impetus due to a medical emergency (in the crowd) that took nearly ten minutes to resolve. The two competitors waited anxiously for play to resume and initially, he seemed okay, but, I wasn’t so sure. He responded with no excuses but said, ‘No, because after that I won three games in a row or four I think. So, no it had nothing to do with it.’
He lost the second set 1-6, so I don’t quite see it his way. He seemed tired and looked anxious to have the interview end. The answers to the journalists’ queries very quickly went downhill when he was asked point blank about the rapid descent and the eventual loss of the second set. He said, ‘Yes, I started to serve badly and also didn’t play good in the rallies. Things can go fast against a player like him if that is the case.’
The third set was a real battle. His play seemed to be gaining momentum once again, but alas, it was for naught. He spoke about his loss and it was clear to see he was disappointed, but he actually seemed to take on a bit of maturity, when he said, ‘I lost 7-6 in the third. Of course, I believed in it, was ahead with a break. As I said, he played a very good match, and I found that he returned unbelievably, as you say. That’s why, yes, he deserves it today.’
Earlier that week, Zverev fell and injured his knee. It seemed fine in his match against Steve Johnson. He was moving well. He was asked about that injury but downplayed the effect of it on his play and said that he felt he was just about back to normal.
An Austrian tennis journalist asked Cheryl, following the press conference what she thought of Zverev. She paused and remembered what he was like when she first watched him in Halle and said, “He is a twerp.” The Austrian slightly taken aback asked, “What does twerp mean?” She answered that it was an individual who is supposed to be an adult but acts like a child. Almost as soon as she completed the sentence, the fellow writer nodded in agreement.
In “Twenty-Four And Counting”, a Ubitennis piece Cheryl wrote on June 3, 2018, she noted, There’s something almost comical about anyone who is twenty-four years old, saying, ‘I’m not that young anymore.’ But, in the world of professional tennis, that could be true. That was a quote from the after-match interview at Roland Garros with Dominic Thiem after he had completed a match with Kei Nishikori. Even though there was a fourth set, there was hardly any doubt that it would go Thiem’s way. And it was 6-2, 6-0, 5-7, 6-4 after the last ball was struck.
Thiem and Nishikori had faced off before. This was the first time that Thiem had come out on top. Watching Thiem perform that day was a study in fluidity. He used effortless strokes and best of all (at least to me) a wonderful single-handed backhand. It seems that he’s not so sure that the backhand is his best stroke, though. When he was asked about it, he said, ‘No, I think my forehand is the shot I’m winning the matches with, definitely. Probably the backhand looks nicer.’
(Well, yes, it does, for many reasons that are too numerous to list here, but let’s just say, as someone who played with a one-handed backhand, it is heartening to see a shot that doesn’t look physically constrained in the way a two-handed backhand appears to me to be.)He then faced a twenty-one-year-old Alexander ‘Sascha’ Zverev in his next match. (Thiem reached the semifinals last year and lost to none other than Rafael Nadal, who went down in the history books when he won his tenth Roland Garros title.) The matchup will be a test for both of the men, with Zverev likely the favorite, even though both of them are strong prospects for the future of tennis once the big four – Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray – say “adieu” to the professional circuit.
There had been much discussion about the ‘Next Generation’ that actually does not include Thiem – he’s too old. For the second year in a row, Thiem is the only player to have defeated Nadal on clay prior to Roland Garros. He defeated Nadal in the quarterfinals at the Madrid-1000 that ended Nadal’s 21 match winning streak on clay and his streak of fifty straight sets won on clay. Nadal hadn’t dropped a set on clay since Thiem’s victory against him in the quarterfinals at the Rome-1000 in 2017. (Thiem, the No. 7 seed defeated Zverev, the No. 2 seed, easily 6-4, 6-2, 6-1 in that quarterfinal contest.)
Thiem, Zverev, Osaka and Azarenka have immense talent, along with a special mental makeup. They have received strong support from their families and even more critical, solid coaching, during their careers.
Thiem’s father, Wolfgang, is a tennis coach as is his mother, Karin. Wolfgang began working at Günter Bresnik‘s academy, in Vienna, when his son was three. Bresnik starting coaching the youngster when he was nine; that relationship ended last spring and Nicolas Massu of Chile is now his coach. Both of Zverev’s parents, Alexander Sr. and Irina played professionally for the Soviet Union. Mischa Zverev is almost 10 years older than Sascha, which is the reason Alexander Sr. concentrated on developing his game while Irina was Sascha’s guide.
Currently, he is working with David Ferrer, the formidable Spaniard, who retired from the tour in 2019. Osaka parents, Leonard Francois and Tamaki Osaka don’t have tennis backgrounds. He is from Haiti and she comes from Japan. Because the law in Japan stipulates that children of a marriage between a native and a foreigner must have the last name of the person from Japan, both Naomi and her older sister, Mari have their mother’s maiden name. Wim Fissette of Belgium is her current coach.
Azarenka’s parents are Fyodor and Alla. Her mother taught her to play when she was a youngster. As Cheryl mentioned in the foregoing, she lived in Arizona with Belarusian NHL player, Nikolai Khabibulin and his wife. She made the move when she was 15-years-old. Currently, she lives in a home she owns in Manhattan Beach, California and Dorian Descloix of France is her coach.
In a Ubitennis, June 18, 2016 story titled “Gerry Weber Open To Feature An All-German Final”, Cheryl pointed out, For only the second time since the Gerry Weber Open has been contested, there will be an all-German final. In 2011, Philipp Kohlschreiber came out on top when he faced countryman Philipp Petzschner on the final Sunday of the weeklong grass court tournament that since 1993 has been a magnificent precursor to Wimbledon. Now it was five years later and teenage sensation Alexander Zverev would take on underdog Florian Mayer.
Saturday’s matches had begun promptly at noon, with the stadium filled to capacity. The crowd was there to watch the opening act with eight-time tournament winner Roger Federer. He faced Alexander Zverev in the first of the semifinal contests. The crowd was animated in their support for both players. Zverev was nineteen and one of the youngest players on the men’s professional tour. He was born in Hamburg, but spent his time in Florida and since early that spring, had a residence in Monaco. To the fans in Halle, he was German.
Zverev swooped on the scene after becoming the Australian Junior Boys’ champion in 2014. His ranking had steadily climbed. He was in the top fifty. He moved higher after that day, because he defeated Federer 7-6, 5-7, 6-3 in just a couple of ticks over two hours. It was quite the victory for young Zverev. It was his first win over a top ten player. He said after the match, “I can’t grasp it at the moment. It is unbelievable to play in front of such an audience.” (As an aside, Zverev was one years-old when Federer began his professional career.)
Federer said that he thought Zverev had the goods. He complemented and congratulated the young man in his own after-match interview. The Swiss tennis maestro made no excuses for his loss. He simply said, “He played better and deserved to win.”
Florian Mayer would be across the net from Zverev. He was thirteen years older to be exact. The thirty-two year-old had defeated Dominic Thiem, who last weekend was involved in a lengthy final in Stuttgart. He must have been exhausted.
Would it be the 6’6” youngster from Hamburg or would it be the 32 year-old who has managed to come back after a serious injury? It was Mayer. I have been a tennis journalist for more than 50 years. In that time, I have seen a good deal of tennis and experienced even more. Nonetheless, I am gobsmacked by how extraordinary Naomi Osaka is as a player and as an individual. What I wrote in “US Open: Odds & Ends” for Ubitennis, September 17, 2020 will further explain what I am trying to say… Naomi Osaka may have earned as much praise for her impressive victory over Victoria Azarenka as she did for her daily face-mask messaging. Her desire to have people ‘see more names’ created awareness about Black victims of police violence such as Ahmaud Arbery, Philando Castile, George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Elijah McClain, Tamir Rice and Breonna Taylor.
Following Floyd’s death in May, she traveled to Minneapolis, Minnesota to take part in peaceful protests that took place there. In July, she co-wrote an article that appeared in Esquire Magazine concerning racism and personally “being all things together at the same time.” After Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot many times by a policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin, she withdrew from the Western & Southern Open semifinal. Tournament officials later decided to suspend play at the National Tennis Center for the entire day in support of her social justice expression.
Having turned 22 last October 16th, Osaka has made a commitment to tennis and an even bigger one to fully use her public platform in an effort to increase awareness and to help stem systemic racism.
Given the USTA’s seemingly growing commitment to diversity, aimed at breaking down racial barriers, and essentially making an effort to change the public’s perception of the organization, it was impossible to understand why Osaka was restrained at the trophy presentation. When asked if she had thought about wearing one of her ‘telling’ masks during the ceremony, she said she had…but was told not to do so… ‘I just did what they told me…’ One wonders, by whom? Was this an official dictate or a television move or…? After the awakening that Naomi Osaka brought about during the two tournaments held at the National Tennis Center, she should have been shown more regard…
Hopefully, our writings from the past have given readers a greater appreciation of the nuances that make Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka, individually and as a group so unique and great tennis players to boot.
Title photo of Naomi Osaka: Vanessa Taylor