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
NADAL’S OWN NOVELTY
The biggest upset at the 2018 men’s Roland Garros tournament was not Marco Cecchinato over Novak Djokovic. It was something much bigger: Through the first six rounds of play, the men produced a better, more interesting, more compelling tournament than the women. That hadn’t happened in a few years. The 2017 Australian Open was great on both the men’s and women’s sides. The last time the men were unambiguously better than the women? If you have a clear answer, good for you, but it won’t come from the past three years. The men have occasionally matched the women and usually fallen short.
At Roland Garros in 2018, the men were better. (more…)
WOMEN’S TENNIS: THIS KIND OF SOCIALISM WORKS
Socialism sounds good in theory but never ends up well in practice, they say.
“They” obviously aren’t watching women’s professional tennis these days.
Remember when Serena Williams continued and extended her control over the WTA Tour at the 2017 Australian Open, following a 2016 run in which she made three major finals and a fourth semifinal? That 2016 season was also a campaign in which Angelique Kerber reached three major finals and won two. Not a lot of sharing happened on the WTA Tour, and when Serena lifted her 23rd major crown in Melbourne, it seemed that women’s tennis would remain a monarchy run by Serena, not a democracy in which various players had an equal say in the year’s most important tournaments.
Then came Serena’s pregnancy, and in a heartbeat, the WTA became a vast expanse of questions and uncertainties.
We have seen on the ATP Tour how the injury-based absences of top players have created voids — not only in terms of consistent results at majors, but also the overall quality of play. This just-concluded French Open was one of the ATP’s better majors in a while, but over the past two years, men’s tennis at the Grand Slam tournaments has been largely dreary and uninspiring. Most finals have been numbingly predictable snoozefests, and without proven players to take charge in halves or quarters of draws, many random results — “someone will win because someone has to, not because someone is transcendent or special” — have proliferated. The 2017 Roland Garros tournament was like this. The 2017 Wimbledon tournament offered glimpses of such an identity. 2017 U.S. Open was the ultimate representation of this dynamic over the past 18 months. The 2018 Australian Open largely fit this description as well.
Missing the top stars the past 18 to 24 months has noticeably hurt the quality of the ATP Tour, so when Serena had to tend to the task of childbirth, everyone naturally wondered how women’s tennis would respond.
The results have been unpredictable, just as they have been with the men (hello, Sam Querrey making a Wimbledon semifinal; Kevin Anderson playing Pablo Carreno Busta in a U.S. Open semifinal; Hyeon Chung and Kyle Edmund making Australian Open semis; Marco Cecchinato making these just-concluded Roland Garros semis). However, women’s tennis has produced the compelling major finals men’s tennis has failed to deliver. Just compare the two Roland Garros finals we witnessed over the weekend.
More than that, women’s tennis is crowning the new champions men’s tennis is failing to produce.
Since the start of 2010, men’s tennis has created only three first-time major champions: Andy Murray at the 2012 U.S. Open, Stan Wawrinka at the 2014 Australian Open, and Marin Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open.
Ever since Serena stepped away from the sport in early 2017, the WTA — in a span of five major tournaments — has exceeded the men’s total of first-time major winners this decade.
Jelena Ostapenko last year at Roland Garros; Sloane Stephens at the U.S. Open; Caroline Wozniacki in Australia; and Simona Halep this past Saturday in Paris have all crossed the threshold. If the men — #ATPLostBoys — can’t pass the baton to younger generations just yet, the WTA is doing exactly that, and in supremely entertaining fashion. What is even more noteworthy: The players at the center of the WTA’s balanced distribution of signature championships are removing significant what-if burdens from the sport.
Ostapenko is the outlier in the group, but Stephens has answered questions about who will be the next American player to follow in Serena’s footsteps — not to the same extent, of course, but certainly in terms of being a constant threat to do well at the biggest events in the sport.
In 2018, Wozniacki and Halep have both removed the eight most oppressive words in tennis or golf from their necks: “Best player never to have won a major.” The unpredictability we all expected in women’s tennis once Serena stepped away has been the happiest, most productive unpredictability one could imagine. The combination of entertainment value and redemptive stories has been off the charts.
The flow of life on the WTA Tour has been so cathartic and inspiring that after Wozniacki and Halep removed burdensome labels from their careers, there’s no similarly acute example remaining of a player currently in contention at majors who is trying to banish her demons. Karolina Pliskova, at 26, is the oldest player without a major in the current WTA top 10. As she gets to age 28 or 29, her story might become more poignant, but as someone who has made only two major semifinals and only one major final, Pliskova doesn’t have the accumulation of memorably painful defeats both Wozniacki and Halep absorbed before those two finally broke through. Wozniacki’s and Halep’s respective triumphs this year carried so much impact because the tennis world was aware how often they had climbed the hill, only to be knocked down to the valleys below. Pliskova’s story doesn’t carry the same weight — not yet. The WTA has written the two foremost feel-good stories it possibly could have authored in 2018.
The one still-active player on the WTA Tour who can legitimately claim to be the “Best Player Never To Have Won A Major” is Agnieszka Radwanska, now 29 years old. However, she is outside the top 25 and hasn’t been a top threat at the majors for roughly two years. (She lost to Serena in the 2016 Australian Open semifinals.) Among active players in contention at the year’s biggest tournaments, no first-time major hopefuls carry the promise of hope or the weight of longing to the degree Wozniacki and Halep offered.
In an age when so many sports teams — internationally and in America — are winning their first huge championships in their respective realms of competition, the WTA is in step with the times. That the WTA’s evolution has coexisted with a high quality of play and gripping major finals shows that this version of socialism — wide and relatively even distribution of resources — works in practice, not just in theory.
We will see at Wimbledon if it continues.
Testigos de la grandeza
Mientras veía a Rafael Nadal intentar completar el tercer set de la final masculina de Roland Garros a la vez que resistía un calambre en su mano izquierda, de repente, comprendí algo que me impactó: cada pequeño detalle debe darse para que un jugador encuentre el santo grial del tenis, también conocido como ganar un gran título de grand slam. No puede haber ningún accidente.
Ningún conductor ebrio, como el que frenó a Thomas Muster, ni un fanático desequilibrado, como el que interrumpió el curso de la vida de Mónica Seles. No puede haber ninguna lesión, como las muñecas vulnerables de Juan Martín Del Potro o ninguna distracción que pueda causar algún problema personal. Ni siquiera se puede sufrir un lapsus de concentración porque eso le abre la puerta a rivales hambrientos que siempre están trabajando para mejorar. (more…)