Jane Voigt

Alexander Zverev hasn’t performed well at Grand Slams. At 21, he’s earned three top-level tour titles at Masters 1000 events, a mighty record for the young man. But for the life of all concerned, he has not advanced beyond the fourth round at a major, losing in the opening round last year in Paris. Seeded number two at this French Open, the pressure has intensified to improve his performance. Wednesday, he rose to the occasion.

Zverev battled back from two sets to one down against Dusan Lajovic, winning his second-round match, 2-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2. The victory for the young German is only the second time on tour (not counting Davis Cup) that he has come back from two sets to one down and won in five.

“This is as much a mental battle as it is physical,” former tennis pro Chanda Rubin said, as she called the match for Tennis Channel.

Her comment was perceptive because most five-set matches demand a mentality that rolls with the punches and quickly recovers point-by-point.

“I didn’t play my best the first three sets,” Zverev said later. “Once I found my range and rhythm, I felt good out there.”

Lajovic, pronounced Lie-o-vitch, was a competent, persistent and skilled opponent early in the match, which was balanced on a knife’s edge for a time. Yet Lajovic’s game took a nosedive in the fourth and fell flat on its face in the fifth, when he began to struggle with what looked like cramps.

With the sun out and temperatures moderate, the reality for the Serbian, who is currently ranked 60, had to have been marked by disappointment. Just a couple weeks ago in Madrid, he upset Juan Martin del Potro, who at the time of the tournament was ranked number six, to advance to the quarterfinals at that Masters event. Had he triumphed over Zverev, he would have captured his second top-10 win.

“Obviously Dusan, at the moment and during the clay-court season, he’s playing unbelievable,” Zverev began. “I knew it was not going to be an easy match.”

“That’s four love,” Leif Shiras said in the fifth, also calling the match for Tennis Channel. “It’s getting to look like Zverev has it tied up. Up two sets to one, [Lajovic] seemed to run out of gas while Zverev continue to apply pressure.”

Learning to play with pressure “is a privilege,” Billie Jean King has said. Yet the practical application of that lofty position tends to be difficult. Jelena Ostapenko, the defending French Open singles champion, lost in the first round this year. At 20 years old, she too has time on her side. Nonetheless, the loss stings. She will tumble way outside the top 10 as a result.

Luckily for Zverev, he has no points to defend in Paris. With a record of 32-8 for the year and leading the tour in the year’s Race To London, Zverev’s time to shine at a major might have arrived.

“Everybody tries to make a bigger story out of it than it is,” Zverev told the press about his subpar record at Majors. “I have had great success on the ATP Tour. Won three Masters, made two other finals this year. I’m not worried. I know if I’m doing the right things and if I do the right work I’ll win those long matches and success will come itself. This is not something I think of on a daily basis. But, yeah, hopefully I can win a few more matches here.”

Pure speculation will not win a Grand Slam, but getting dirty just might. Zverev looked like he had deliberately rolled in terre battue halfway through the match, his attire certainly reflecting the effort he extended.

“It’s not a clay-court match until you get a little dirty,” Rubin said.

This was the first meeting for these two players. Because of the challenge from Lajovic, Zverev had to maintain a point-by-point performance, not letting up on the gas at all. Aces won Zverev nine free points. At six-foot-five, his serve is an asset. He won 78 percent and 47 percent of the points off successful first and second serves. He had a lopsided winners to unforced errors stat — 42 to 53 — but aggressive tactics often push those numbers into negative territory. He outstripped Lajovic in overall service points won, return points won and total points won, which isn’t always true after a lengthy match.

“I think [I] just tried to win each game,” Zverev explained. “Somehow, [I] came back. I successfully did that. I’m very happy to be here with a five-set win [against] someone who has beaten great opponents during the clay-court season.”

Zverev, who is tall and slender, has worked with trainers to gain weight and improve longevity for these types of matches.

“We do a lot of Versa Climb,” he began. “A lot of running on the track, treadmill stuff. All that helps me play those long matches.”

To relax Zverev works out with PlayStation.

“I play with Marcelo Melo and he can’t beat me,” he said, referring to the Brazilian pro and doubles aficionado. “That makes me happy. That’s my evening routine (smiling).”

It paid off handsomely in the middle of a sunny late-May afternoon.

Image source – Karla Kinne @ tennisclix.com


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