If you were standing close to Alexander Zverev after he won yet another five-set match at Roland Garros on Friday, you might have heard a sigh of relief. He had escaped a match point and, probably more important to the German, another round with reporters who could have pummeled him with questions.
“Why do you think you can’t make it at Grand Slams?”
“When do you think you’ll win one?”
But the second seed won’t face that nightmare, at least for another day. He escaped by defeating a ready, willing and able Damir Dzumhur, 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6(3), 7-5. The speedy native of Sarajevo and No. 26 seed showed Zverev that he has to continue to improve in order to come closer to his dream: a Grand Slam title.
“He (Dzumhur) is a tough opponent and one of the biggest competitors that we have,” Zverev told the press. “I was not surprised. Not surprised at all.”
The win is a mini-achievement for Zverev. For the second time in his short career he has advanced to the fourth round at a major. His first foray to this critical juncture in a 128-player draw was last year at Wimbledon.
“He should be proud of himself after coming back from another five-setter,” James Blake said, calling the match for Tennis Channel.
Pride is okay for a moment, then it has to be set aside. More hard work is needed from Zverev. His net game was a glaring weakness on Friday: 27-64. He donated the one match point to Dzumhur on a missed net shot. Zverev erased it with a big serve, his ultimate weapon. Yet his winners and unforced errors equaled those from Dzumhur: 59 and 51.
So should we expect the 21-year-old to bust through the draw now because fans, and the press, won’t be satisfied with a fourth-round exit? Is this where the pressure mounts for Zverev? Or is he on the right route?
Roger Federer, the 20-time Grand Slam champion, was nearly Zverev’s age when he advanced to a quarterfinal at a major for the first time. That was 2001. Federer defeated reigning Wimbledon champion Pete Sampras in five sets to then lost to Tim Henman in the quarterfinals. Two years later Roger won his first major title at The All England Club. He defeated Mark Philippoussis in straight sets in the final. Seven years beyond that benchmark, in 2010, Federer had 16 Grand Slam titles. But it didn’t matter how many he had in the first round of Wimbledon that year. Alejandro Falla took Federer to the brink of elimination. Down two sets, Federer mounted a comeback of comebacks, telling fans he was a little bit lucky to have won. Then, he lost to Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals.
There are ups and there are downs. The trajectory does not climb steadily upward.
Federer has lost twice to Zverev, who is 16 years younger. He believes Zverev will be a “major threat to the game’s elite for years to come,” Reuters reported.
“‘I like what I’m seeing in Sascha,” Federer said, after a round-robin win against him at the ATP Tour Finals last fall. “‘I see somebody who is working toward the future. I feel like he’s working toward how he could be playing when he’s 23, 24, in terms of fitness, planning, organization, all these things.”
“‘What I like about Zverev is he’s got the full package,” Federer said, when comparing him to contemporaries Nick Kyrgios and Denis Shapovalov.
Full package is quite a compliment coming from Federer, who many believe is the greatest player of all time. But the anointment doesn’t preclude struggles. Zverev’s struggle against Dzumhur made clear that he can overcome a gray day, damp conditions, and a game opponent when he keeps plodding forward while balancing all the elements a champion needs to cultivate.
“‘He’s still very young, still up-and-coming to some extent,” Federer said, after losing to Zverev in the final of the Rogers Cup last summer in Montreal, tennis.com reported. “I just think it’s important to sometimes take a step back and actually see the good things you’ve done, give yourself time, maybe set the bar a bit lower. First let’s many try to look for a quarters or a semifinal, not just right away think coming to the Australian Open, U.S. Open, and I have to win this thing.’”
It seems that Zverev has adopted the Federer Zen method, where staying in the moment and planning your next steps is the best way to Grand Slam history.
“When you’re down match point, you’re not thinking, ‘Oh, how am I going to turn this match around?’” Zverev told the press, when asked about inner battles. “I’m trying to win each point. I’m trying to win matches. If it takes me three sets, great. If it takes me five sets, that’s also great. It doesn’t matter how much time I’ll spend on court. It doesn’t matter if it goes 9-7 in the fifth.”
What matters to Zverev? He advanced to the next round.
“I’m going to play in two days and that’s it,” he added. “There is nothing more to it.”
“I have the feeling that he may have set too high goals for himself, which is good and important,” Federer told the Noz, a German publication.
But just because Zverev has won three Masters titles doesn’t mean a major is next.
“This is the logical process in the mind,” Federer added. “But if you’re thinking of the semifinals or finals but you’re still in the second round at break and at break point, then it’s hard to play normally.”
Federer went through phases. So will Zverev. And yes, he is better equipped going into next week at this French Open. Why? Because he won two five-setters and because he won, period. Confidence and trust in his game increased on Friday.
“I remember my first-ever Grand Slam major match was against Gabashvili, and it was 9-7 in the fifth,” Zverev said. “To start your Grand Slam career like that was awesome and then win my first match on center court (at Roland Garros) 7-5 in the fifth … there’s no better way.”
Make no mistake, though. The round of 16 is a different set of circumstances. That Zverev has won two five-set matches against players ranked 29 (Dzumhur) and 60 (Dusan Lajovic) won’t deter the level of competition coming his way next week. Those guys — Kei Nishikori, Dominic Thiem, and, perhaps, Karen Khachanov — don’t care about the struggle. They don’t care about the fact that Zverev has a 32-8 match record, that he’s seeded number two, that he has beaten Federer a couple times and listens to his advice. So as much as the in-the-moment plan is a good one, Zverev’s game has to be revved from the start and keep improving until he faces the exit door.
Image source -John Anthony/ISPA/Tennisclix