Alexander Zverev has lost all six sets he has played in major quarterfinals. Karen Khachanov got routined by Dominic Thiem in his first major quarterfinal. Are these Roland Garros results disappointing? Maybe for Zverev, who served for the first set against Novak Djokovic and had 30-15 at 5-4… but ultimately, losses in individual matches cannot and should not overwhelm what they achieved this fortnight in Paris.
The explanation is not hard to understand.
Dominic Thiem has made four straight French Open semifinals. He is a beast in best-of-five-set matches on clay. The only men to beat him at Roland Garros over the past four years? Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Thiem is very clearly the third-best clay-court player on the planet behind Rafa and Nole. Getting drummed by Thiem is no embarrassment for Khachanov, certainly not on the first try.
Speaking of “first try,” Alexander Zverev’s inability to consistently make major-tournament quarterfinals meant that his Thursday quarterfinal against Djokovic marked the first time in his career that he played a member of the Big 3 in a major quarterfinal. You can’t perform and act as though you have been there before if………….. you haven’t actually been there before.
Playing the Big 3 late in a major takes getting used to. Even Stan Wawrinka had to lose to Djokovic in the 2013 U.S. Open semifinals before winning against Novak in Australia in early 2014. These are tests players don’t ace the first time.
The point of a first time — a first test — for a young player is merely EXPERIENCING the test itself. The response might be terrible. The performance might be poor. That’s okay. That is expected or at least readily understood.
From a first test — and all of its (likely) frustrations and inadequacies — comes the ability to learn, grow and improve.
That’s what this Roland Garros was good for in the eyes of Zverev and Khachanov. They will probably need to face the Big 3 or Thiem in future major quarterfinals or semifinals — and absorb a few more losses — before getting it right.
The problem with Zverev over the past year and a half is that he didn’t create these meetings at majors. Stefanos Tsitsipas has met Federer, Nadal and Wawrinka this year at majors. He is collecting the lessons and moments which should teach him down the road. Zverev finally collected one such moment in his own right. Khachanov did as well. Collecting more growth points later this year is an important goal for both players.
Winning majors should happen for Alexander Zverev and Karen Khachanov five years from now, when the Big 3 have aged out (or at least come closer to aging out). Zverev and Khachanov will be in their late 20s, in their physical primes.
If you expected either man to win majors this year, you were expecting too much, but as long as they can collect more major quarterfinals and more encounters with the elites, they will gain the information, context and perspective which will enable their careers to eventually reach their full potential.