Continuing our review of the 2020 season, today we look at the top two Grand Slam comebacks of the year. Next week, we’ll look at the best matches, comebacks and upsets at ATP Tour tournaments.
2. Roger Federer d. Tennys Sandgren, Australian Open, QF, January 28 2020
Harry Houdini was perhaps the best-known magician of all time. His signature trick was to escape what he called a water torture cell, where he was submerged in a tank of water upside down, his ankles locked in shackles. Roger Federer, tennis’ great artist and magician, has made some great escapes of his own over the years, perhaps none better than when he beat Tennys Sandgren at the Australian Open in January, saving seven match points in a delightfully entertaining and unpredictable match.
On paper, Federer was a big favourite to beat Sandgren, then ranked No. 100. But Federer was troubled by nagging groin and knee injuries and he struggled at times in five and four set wins over John Millman and Marton Fucsovics prior to his quarter-final matchup with Sandgren, who is named after his Swedish great-great grandfather. By contrast, Sandgren was coming off upset wins over Matteo Berrettini, Sam Querrey, and Fabio Fognini. And he had the best run of his life at the same event, reaching the quarter-finals in 2018, so it wasn’t his first big rodeo Down Under.
Federer looked like the man to beat early on, as he took the first set 6-3 in just over 30 minutes. But Roger’s game, particularly his backhand, seemed to desert him in the second and third sets, as he sprayed 30 unforced errors to fall behind two sets to one. His frustration boiled over, and at one point, he was given a code violation for an audible obscenity—a rarity for him that he later said was “a bit tough”. “It’s not like I’m known to throw around words,” he said after the match.
Video courtesy Tennis Australia
The raucous, pro-Federer crowd on Rod Laver Arena tried to will Federer back into the match, but it seemed like a lost cause when Sandgren had three match points as the Swiss served at 4-5, 0-40 in the fourth set. But the American, who wore what one writer called a “Cobra Kai” style kit with a sleeveless shirt and green headband, squandered all three chances with errant forehands.
But the muscular American regrouped in the fourth set tie-break, racing out to a 6/3 advantage with a barrage of his trademark powerful serves and forehands. Once again though, the magician from Münchenstein showed why he’s one of the sport’s all-time greats. After saving two more match points, he gave the crowd what David Foster Wallace called a “Federer moment” at 5/6 down, flicking a deft backhand pass down the line and then boldly following it into the net where he casually smacked a swinging forehand volley into the open court for a winner as though it was as easy as taking some Swiss chocolates from a baby.
Federer saved his seventh match point at 6/7 down and then clinched the tie-break 10/8 as Sandgren overcooked an overhead smash to send the match into a fifth set, which Federer dominated to secure the improbable 6-3 2-6 2-6 7-6(8) 6-3 win.
“I feel a bit bad in a way because I didn’t feel like he did anything really wrong,” Federer said afterwards. “It’s just luck at some point. I’ve been on the other side, as well. These ones just sting, and they hurt. But I could have blinked at the wrong time and shanked (a shot). That would have been it.”
Federer said that he tends to keep the faith until the last ball is struck. “I only believe it once it’s over, I shake the hand of the opponent, that it’s over, that it’s fine,” he said.
1. Dominic Thiem d. Alexander Zverev, US Open, Final, September 13 2020
It was just one match, and here it claims just one title: best comeback of the year in a Grand Slam tournament. But Dominic Thiem’s win over Alexander Zverev in the final of the US Open this year was a match for the ages, one that was much more than just a great comeback. It was a war. It was a test. It was a chess match. At times, it was a comedy, sometimes even a bit of a horror show. It was a struggle to overcome nerves and physical limitations. It was a match you’ll tell your grandkids about.
Above all else, it was high drama, filled with scenes of agony, ecstasy, tears, joy, fear and every other human emotion imaginable. After living through this theatre with these men across four hours and one minute, it felt like watching your twin sons play—no one was sure who to root for and even the fans of one man hated to see the other lose.
Coming into the match, Thiem fans had every reason to believe their man would become the first new major champion in six years. The Austrian dropped just one set in six matches leading up to the final, playing a total of 19 sets, compared to 24 sets for Zverev, who had to come from two sets down to beat Pablo Carreno Busta in the semi-finals. But it was the German who looked sharper early in the match, taking the first two sets as Thiem looked out of sorts.
Thiem showed signs of life late in the second set though, forcing Zverev to play five set points before he finally seized the two-set advantage. Early in the third set, the momentum shifted toward the Austrian when Zverev missed a routine volley on a break point. After Thiem won the third and fourth sets, it looked like gute nacht for Zverev.
Boris Becker once said, “the fifth set isn’t about tennis, it’s about nerves,” and his adage was entirely appropriate for this match, as both players struggled to overcome cramps and nerves. Zverev’s cramps limited his cannon serve—which at times dropped to around 70 mph— but, in a match full of surprises, he regained momentum against all the odds in the fifth set, as he served for the match at 5-3. But the German couldn’t close the sale and the match concluded, appropriately enough, in a tie-break.
At 6/6, Thiem blasted two passing shots right at Zverev, then passed him with a blistering forehand on the third try. A point later, the German sailed a backhand wide and Thiem finally had his first major in a gritty 2-6, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6(6) win. The players embraced, with Thiem burying his head in his younger and taller rival’s shoulder as if he was hugging a loved one. No one could tell where the sweat ended and the tears began.
“We both deserved it,” Thiem said after the match. “I achieved a life goal and a dream I had for many, many years.”
Zverev fought back tears during his trophy presentation speech. “It’s just tough, you know,” he said. “I wish one day that I can bring the trophy home.”
Thiem’s former coach, Gunther Bresnik, told The New York Times after the match that it was one of the worst finals he ever saw in his life. The level of play did indeed dip at times, as the players battled fatigue, cramps and nerves, but Bresnik seems to have missed the beauty of the match. It was perhaps the most human and relatable final in US Open history, one that anyone who’s ever picked up a racquet couldn’t take their eyes off of for a moment and will never forget.
Read More In Our Best Of 2020 Series