Sept 14 (Reuters) - Dominic Thiem ended a six-year wait for a new name on a men's Grand Slam trophy on Sunday with his U.S. Open triumph but it was not just Alexander Zverev that the Austrian had to battle on court to fulfil his "life goal".
Rafa Nadal had denied Thiem the French Open trophy at the previous two editions of that tournament, while at the start of 2020 it was world number one Novak Djokovic who outlasted him in the Australian Open title clash.
Thiem did not have to go through Djokovic, Nadal or Roger Federer, the sport's 'Big Three', during the two weeks at Flushing Meadows this year but that presented a unique mental challenge as the 27-year-old wrestled with long-time friend Zverev, 23, for success in his fourth Slam final.
"We both didn't face one of the 'Big Three', so I guess that was in the back of the head for both of us," Thiem told reporters. "That's why we were nervous. (It) was a very good chance for the both of us."
The experience of playing three Grand Slam finals previously was supposed to be an advantage for the Austrian against an opponent who was featuring in his first final at a major.
But it proved to be a burden for Thiem, who found himself two sets and a break down against the big-serving German before fighting back to win 2-6 4-6 6-4 6-3 7-6(6).
"Honestly, I think it didn't help me at all because I was so tight in the beginning. Maybe it was not even good that I played in previous major finals," he said.
"I mean, 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. That's what exactly happened in the beginning."
But Thiem managed to quell those doubts and levelled things against Zverev before winning a nerve-jangling final set tiebreak to achieve "a life goal, a dream".
Thiem hopes to play more freely with fewer nerves in future, having finally tasted success at one of the sport's biggest stages while also becoming the first man since Croat Marin Cilic won the 2014 U.S. Open to secure a maiden Grand Slam trophy.
He is also the first player born in the 1990s to claim a men's Grand Slam, and the first outside Nadal and Federer, who both missed the tournament, and Djokovic, who was disqualified, to win a major since Stan Wawrinka's 2016 U.S. Open triumph.
CHARTING OWN PATH
Thiem will now face heavier expectations in future Grand Slams but has proved he is not one to shy away from pressure.
The Austrian, who faced his share of criticism for playing in Djokovic's ill-fated Adria Tour event, declined to contribute to an emergency fund for financially struggling lower-ranked professionals during the COVID-19 shutdown, fully aware that he would draw flak from pundits and fellow players for his stand.
Thiem, who has earned almost $27 million in career prize money, stood his ground in the face of criticism, proving that he was ready to chart his own path forward.
Most of Thiem's early success came on claycourts, where long baseline rallies test a player's patience and endurance, but he showed the first signs of a smooth transition to hardcourts when he won last year's ATP Masters at Indian Wells.
Reaching the season-ending ATP Finals further underlined his development while he put any lingering doubts about his hardcourt prowess to rest by progressing to the Australian Open final in Melbourne earlier this year.
"Before I started to work with him, when I saw him like a spectator, I said he can play everywhere, not only on clay," his coach Nicolas Massu said.
"He can have the same results on every surface because the game, the shots, he's talented, he has everything. Maybe he needs to adjust small things." (Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai; Editing by Ken Ferris)