In the last two years, no one has played more five-setters at Grand Slams than Alexander Zverev. In the past eight Grand Slams, the 22-year-old has played 10 five-setters. Yet, he has never gone past the quarter-finals at any Major expect the French Open.
If that sounds like an anomaly, it is because it is exactly that. Zverev and five-setters in Slams are a bit of a joke by now.
In fact, he joked it himself saying he did it to entertain the crowd after his three-hour long match against American Frances Tiafoe in the second round of the US Open. “I’ve been here before, it’s usually what I do in the first few rounds of majors — I play five sets.”
For the second straight match, he needed a decider despite looking the better player. And in the end, he survived his proclivity to compound trouble and a spirited game from 21-year-old to win 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3.
In the process, Zverev once again showed what he is capable of when his game clicks together.
The Zverev roller coaster
Anyone who has watched him play will attest that the talent of the 22-year-old German has never been in doubt. Even with his frequent early exits from big events, a poor record with just one title on 2019, being dumping by coach Ivan Lendl and personal issues, he is always a player to watch out for.
A regular in the ATP Top 10, he is the only active Non-Big Four player to have three Masters titles and won the season-ending ATP Finals last November beating Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
In short, his tennis is not a problem. The real problem is gathering the different components of his solid game together to function as one unit in a match. Bringing together his first serve, forehand, focus and fighting spirit at the same time is as much a challenge for him as facing the opponent.
Too often in the past, his matches have had a domino effect: Poor error leads to a double fault, which in turn leads to a break and slumped shoulders. Perhaps a racquet smash also makes its way into the mix somewhere. Then, all the opponent has to do is press home the advantage.
But, on the rare occasion, when the physical and mental gears function together, Zverev’s game can be as eye-catching and effective as any top player. That he doesn’t have the Slam results to show for it is down to this inability to bring it all together at the right time, in the right way.
On Thursday, both the crumbling Zverev and the confident Zverev made an appearance in alternate sets.
The sixth seed broke Tiafoe in the very first service game of the match and maintained the lead to take the first set. But as we have seen so often in the past, the young German couldn’t consolidate a lead.
He, then, wasted break points before double-faulting to give the advantage away and Tiafoe made it one-set all on his fourth set point. The American may be world No 45 but he has a big game and made the quarter-finals at the Australian Open this year and he fed off the raucous crowd exploiting Zverev’s errors.
But in the third set, the ATP Finals champion was back as he fired winners off his forehand flank and cleaned up his act. The finish line was all but there.
And then came a long break, potential gamesmanship, as Tiafoe took a long comfort break and Zverev paced the baseline restlessly.
The fourth set saw Tiafoe roar back with two breaks as the sixth seed withered and sprayed errors to all parts. The frustration was creeping in and the crowd wasn’t helping. The shoulders drooped and the body language seemed to suggest that he was retreating into an old pattern.
Yet, somehow, the youngster who was once the heir apparent to the Big Three, found his way back and blazed through the decider on the back of solid strokes and an unflappable serve. While Tiafoe needed treatment, after almost three hours in the heat, the German played how the tennis fans who have followed him for years expected him too.
Perhaps the best way to understand how Zverev oscillates between ‘Wow’ and ‘oh no’ is a look at his numbers: 63 winners to offset 53 unforced errors and 22 aces against 11 double faults.
This sort of a go-for-broke, inconsistent game will surely not serve him well in the long run, even though his fitness looked great. The obvious emotional energy he has to expend to stay in the contest will also hold him back.
But in the two straight fifth sets, there may yet be positives. The secret to beating Zverev has always been picking at the threads of his game, but that he managed to regroup and tune out the crowd means there is hope.
After his shock first-round exit at Wimbledon he had said his “confidence is below zero” and troubles with his agent and coach and his father’s illness have weighed him down all season. It may not take just one match to turn it around, but a win like this is definitely a start.
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