Brain Game: Why Longer Rallies Underpinned Thiem’s Brutal US Open Victory
“The problem was my nerves,” Thiem said post-match. In much the same way that Stan Wawrinka was shaking and crying in the locker room before defeating Novak Djokovic in four sets in the 2016 US Open final, Thiem said he was tight the whole day.
Because of the tightness, he quickly fell behind two sets to love and a break down in the third. Because as Thiem said, “the belief was stronger than the body,” he won his first Grand Slam title, defeating Alexander Zverev 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(6) in one of the most physically and mentally draining finals in recent times. Both players cramped at the end, their bodies failing them when they needed it most. Their minds went to hell and back trying to reach the finish line first.
Zverev was not tight at all to begin the match, but he too succumbed to nerves trying to close a huge lead instead of continuing to employ the aggressive, net-rushing game style that positioned him so far ahead in the match. Knowing that the wolves were howling in the head of both players during the final provides the necessary lens to understand the match analytics, which dramatically changed from beginning to end.
For example, Zverev had 10 forehand winners and 17 forehand errors in the first two sets. It was the most dominant shot on the court. In the remaining three sets, he only had seven forehand winners and committed 40 errors. Nerves mercilessly took this shot out at the knees.
At the 61-minute mark of the final, Thiem walked up to the baseline to serve trailing 6-2, 5-1, 30/40. He ended up saving three break points in that game, providing the first speck of light at the end of the tunnel. He reeled off three straight games to 4-5, including breaking Zverev for the first time in the match.
This is where the winds started to change for Thiem.
In Zverev’s post-match interview, he said, “The match turned when he broke me for the first time in the second set (at 5-2). I think he started playing much better and I started playing much worse.” If Zverev ever has any doubts about the game style best suited for his athletic 6’6” frame, he needs to look no further than the first 14 games of the final where he led 6-2, 5-1. He is a power baseliner who relentlessly hunts the short ball. And yes, serving and volleying is a line item that sits right at the top of the game plan.
Zverev Coming Forward
In the final, Zverev served and volleyed 40 times (a stat that includes aces, unreturned serves and five double faults, when he was moving forward), winning a commanding 68 per cent (27/40). Zverev won five of six points serving and volleying in the opening set, including serving and volleying on a second serve leading 2-1, 15-0. The strategy worked so well because Thiem stood as far back as possible to take up his return position, often times double checking where the linespeople were in his immediate vicinity, so as not to collide with them.
Zverev was credited with approaching the net 66 times in the match, winning a healthy 65 per cent (43/66) of points, which was far superior than the 45 per cent (72/160) he won standing at the baseline. With Thiem wanting to stand back as far as possible to return and rally, coming forward was the perfect antidote for Zverev.
Thiem Extending The Rallies
Zverev put on a north-south masterclass in the first two sets. Thiem desperately wanted to turn the match east-west and make it a groundstroke duel with lots of heavy topspin, heavy slice and side-to-side pain. He wanted to wear Zverev out and was willing to sacrifice every ounce of his own fitness to make it happen.
The average rally length of the five sets identifies exactly how Thiem scraped his way back into the match.
Average Rally Length
|Set||Avg. Rally Length||Outcome|
The average rally length in the fifth set (6.29 shots) was almost double that of the second set (3.30 shots) when Zverev was basically untouchable.
Zverev’s 15 double faults played a major part in him losing the final. He was broken seven times in the match, with seven double faults occurring in five of those service games. Two double faults reared their head in the fifth set tie-break.
Zverev saved one match point at 5-6 in the fifth set tie-break with a 68mph second serve that barely crept over the net. Serving at 3-4 in the fourth set, he hit seven second serves and was ultimately broken. One was a double fault, two were over 130mph, while the other four were 83mph and lower. Nobody knew what was coming or where they were landing, especially Zverev.
Overall, both players ran a 5K during the final, with Thiem running 5206 metres and Zverev running 5138 metres. The average distance run per point for Thiem was a lactic-acid-inducing 16.17 metres, with Zverev averaging 15.96 metres. Thiem’s desperate game plan of extending rallies to outlast Zverev was a dangerous one, as it took him to the very brink of exhaustion to pull it off. He could not stand still toward the end of the match for fear of his body locking up.
This final was about survival. It was about believing there was a way forward when one didn’t exist.