Matt Zemek

These are the holiest days of the year for Christians. At liturgies, churchgoers will listen to biblical stories of death and darkness and evil, and of resurrection and hope and new life.

The timing of the Miami Open is exquisite, is it not? 

The day before Good Friday, the demons which danced in the heads of Alexander Zverev and Pablo Carreno Busta might not have been destroyed forever, but they certainly were diminished and defeated. A Masters 1000 semifinal is no small thing, but the prize won by these two players was far more than the 180 extra ranking points or the added take-home pay provided by the achievement. The biggest thing Zverev and Carreno won was internal liberation from a nagging reality.

Athletes might try to block out negative statistics or trends, but they know they exist. Even if athletes might be moderately successful at shutting out the noise of what television commentators or Twitter keyboard warriors might say about them, they are still confronted about basic facts by reporters on site at tennis tournaments.

“So, Pablo, what about the fact that you haven’t yet beaten Kevin Anderson or have won very few matches against ATP top-10 players?

“So, Sascha, why will this match against Borna Coric be different from the U.S. Open last summer in New York? Do you think your talent is ready to once again be accompanied by the toughness which has been missing from your game?”

Carreno and Zverev might have tried to focus on hitting the ball and merely playing the next point, but in the real world, players know when they face a challenge. They know when they carry the pressure attached to a powerful and urgent career need. In the case of both men, they needed to beat their opponent for the first time. Yes, the sample sizes were relatively small, but that shouldn’t diminish the weight of the occasion in each of Thursday’s Miami Open ATP quarterfinals. When one player establishes a consistent upper hand in the early stages of a head-to-head matchup, it becomes harder for the losing player to turn the tide. The longer one player maintains his winning streak, the harder it is for his opponent to break the spell and change the tenor of the mano-a-mano battle.

Alexander Zverev played some of his best tennis of 2017 in the middle of a North American summer, rolling to titles in consecutive weeks in Washington, D.C., and Montreal. He had no legs left for Cincinnati — it was neither an upset nor a disappointment when he lost early — but he was supposed to deliver the goods at the U.S. Open, especially since he had such a conspicuously favorable draw.

Yet, Zverev got taken out in the first week of that Open by the man he had to face again on Thursday. Borna Coric did not build on his U.S. Open in any meaningful way, but he definitely restored his game in Indian Wells and Miami. The prospect of facing an in-form version of Coric made this quarterfinal even more important for Zverev. Much as he didn’t want Coric to control the court on Thursday night, Zverev didn’t want Coric to gain any more territorial dominance in a rivalry which is poised to become a regular meeting in the 2020s. Coric wore down Zverev in that match in New York. For this reunion in Key Biscayne, Zverev knew he had to get on top of points and deliver authoritative first-strike tennis.

He did exactly that, and abruptly, the German who stumbled through the ATP Finals and the first few months of 2018 suddenly looks like the favorite to win a third Masters title. (Juan Martin del Potro is fatigued, even though he is playing and competing well.) If he had lost to Coric, his Miami tournament still would have offered reasons to be encouraged, but now, Zverev — having beaten back one of the particularly dark memories of his productive yet erratic 2017 season — can know with great reassurance that he is back on the right track. No, the questions about best-of-5 tennis can’t be answered until late May in Paris — that demon must wait to be subdued — but Zverev took a huge step forward in 2018 against Coric.

Speaking of Coric, the man he faced in the very next round of the 2017 U.S. Open after dismissing Zverev was none other than Kevin Anderson, whom Coric defeated a few weeks ago in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. Anderson had never beaten Zverev, so Coric did him a huge favor last summer in New York. Anderson used that “bracket break” to go all the way to the final, taking advantage of the wasteland the bottom half of that draw had become once Andy Murray pulled out of the tournament. 

The man Anderson defeated in the semifinals last September to forge his greatest achievement as a professional was none other than Pablo Carreno Busta. The Spaniard has played Anderson well in a series of tough matches, but entering Thursday, he had never played well enough to win. In Indian Wells, the two men met in the round of 16, and sure enough, Anderson won a cliffhanger in a final-set tiebreaker. Carreno came close, but he still couldn’t get over the hump and win the two extra points he needed.

Thursday, in yet another final-set breaker against Kando, Carreno won the final two points. He very nearly lost a match which he had been about to win in the second set, but the steadfast Spaniard gathered himself in the third set and managed to flip the script: He won a match in which he had been down match point. He will never again have to wonder about the absence of wins against Anderson. The Masters semifinal is a very big deal, but wrestling a demon to the ground also means a great deal for Carreno’s career.

The Miami Open’s final ATP matches — occurring on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday — could have featured Roger Federer and Marin Cilic, but matches with those players wouldn’t have fit the image of a resurrection.

Alexander Zverev and Pablo Carreno Busta — one a decisive winner, the other a survivor of a near-death experience — are much better and thematically appropriate examples of men who suffered and felt the weight of failure, but have gained new life in a land of palm trees.

The day of their semifinal will be a very Good Friday indeed.



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