The Loss Cam—the camera that follows a defeated tennis player down the tunnel and into the locker room—is one of the crueler innovations in sports. It seemed even more so on Saturday, as it tracked young Alexander Zverev’s journey out of Rod Laver Arena and into oblivion.
The 20-year-old German, who is expected to make big strides at the Grand Slams this season, had just been beaten in the most mortifying manner imaginable. After leading one set to love, and two sets to one, he had allowed a peer and potential future rival, 21-year-old Hyeon Chung, to storm back and bagel him in a fifth set. The fact that we all got to watch as Zverev trudged, hollow-eyed, away from the scene of the disaster only added insult to injury.
By the time he had reached the interview room, though, Zverev had gathered himself, left oblivion behind, and managed to put the defeat in perspective. He was characteristically honest in his self-assessment.
“I have some figuring out to do, what happens to me in deciding moments in Grand Slams,” Zverev said. “It happened at Wimbledon. It happened in New York. It happened here.”
Zverev’s lost in Melbourne was an amalgamation of his last two Slam defeats. At Wimbledon, Zverev let Milos Raonic, a player he appeared to be controlling, hang around long enough to get back into the match and roll through the fifth set; that’s exactly what happened against Chung. At the US Open, Zverev was surprised by another fellow young gun, Borna Coric, who was clearly aiming to take down the leader of the Next Gen pack. On Saturday, Zverev inspired that same, elevated level of quality and intensity from Chung.
“I think this was the best he can play,” Zverev said of Chung. “If he backs this up, then we’ll see how far he can go.”
Commentating for ESPN, Brad Gilbert harped on Zverev’s forehand, which he said was too “spinny”—i.e., hit with too much loop and safety, rather than ripped aggressively. That was true, but Zverev was also hampered by something more general about his game, and something harder to fix: he doesn’t instinctively move forward. Even when he has an opponent on the run, Zverev won’t step into the court, the way, say, Roger Federer and Denis Shapovalov typically do. Unlike them, he doesn’t go for the throat, in rallies or in matches.
Zverev said he played well against Chung, but he also seemed to play tight—hence those safe and spinny forehands. Last November, Chung won the Next Gen Finals in Milan; Zverev, who qualified for the ATP Finals in London, had essentially graduated from the kids’ table by then. But in the eyes of his fellow youngsters, Zverev is still one of them. The Next Gen label, which was started two years ago by the ATP, has begun to create a peer pressure and a hierarchy of its own—the guys designated Next Gen are chasing their No. 1, Zverev, while he’s trying to stay ahead of them. The gap, especially with Chung, may soon be closing.
While one German was losing the battle of court position on Saturday, another was, surprisingly, winning hers.
The third-round match between Angelique Kerber and Maria Sharapova had been highly anticipated. How often do you get two former No. 1 players and multiple Grand Slam champs going up against each other this early in an event? It was made more intriguing by the fact Sharapova is one of the game’s great attackers, and Kerber one of its great defenders. That contrast had led to several entertainingly intense three-setters in the past.
From the start of this one, though, Kerber was determined not to let that old contrast-in-style script play out. She did what she has done in all of her matches so far in 2018: she served bigger and returned more proactively than she as in the past, and she hugged the baseline during rallies. Instead of settling back and giving chase, Kerber met the ball earlier, directed it to the corners, and made Sharapova move. For the defensive-minded Kerber, it’s about doing what doesn’t come naturally.
“You have to say it to yourself every single point,” said Kerber, when she was asked what the key to staying aggressive is for her. “I know that I can always trust my legs, that I can run forever, that I can bring a lot of balls back. But I want also to improve my game, to being more aggressive, also taking the ball in my hands.”
Kerber and new coach Wim Fissette have tweaked Kerber’s technique on her serve, so she gets more of her legs into the shot—it’s a change that, now that it’s been made, makes you wonder why it wasn’t made a decade ago. And they’ve focused on having her begin points, especially on the return, from a more offensive position. When she does that, it allows her to create her trademark angles and use her underrated touch more freely. Kerber had success moving Sharapova forward and side to side.
But listening to Kerber talk, her 2018 renaissance seems to be as much about her mindset as it does her technique or tactics.
“After last year, when I start my off-season, I was really focusing again on what I’m doing,” she said after her 6-1, 6-3 triumph. “I was just trying to get fit again...trying to improve my game, trying to improve my serve.
“Just, you know, playing again. I think enjoying my tennis, fighting until every single ball, not thinking too much what’s happen around, against who I’m playing, all the things which are beside the court.”
Kerber, in other words, is back to being herself, rather than the No. 1 player in the world. Some players relish that status; Kerber isn’t one of them. She’s more comfortable just being a tennis player like any other tennis player, worrying only about herself and her game, and trying to make it better.
If she’s not careful, though, and she keeps improving like this, Kerber may find herself back near the top of the sport very soon.
The Opening Act that Become an Epic
Did you have Simona Halep vs. Lauren Davis down as a possible match of the tournament, and possibly the season? Aussie Open officials didn’t; they made this contest between the WTA’s No. 1 and No. 76 the opening act in Rod Laver Arena on Saturday.
Despite the ranking disparity, the signs were there. Each woman is a runner who can also hit winners, but neither is big enough to blow the opponent off the court. That’s a recipe for long rallies on any day; on this day, it was a recipe for long, and really good, rallies. The match lasted three hours and 44 minutes; the third set alone took two hours and 22 minutes. They played 333 points. Davis hit 52 winners and made 73 errors. There were 13 breaks of serve, but those breaks were won by the returner, not lost by the server. As Halep-Davis showed, not all baseline battles are boring, and not all service breaks are a sign of a bad match.
Davis may never have played this well before. She flattened out her ground strokes and snapped them into the corners brilliantly; she was especially good at redirecting the ball up the line with her forehand. She came in 38 times and won 28 of those points. She never stopped firing, but she never played recklessly. Davis was the better player for most of this match; the only thing she couldn’t do was close. Each time she appeared to have the match in hand—including the three match points she held on Halep’s serve deep in the third set—Davis’s mind got in the way of her arms.
Keeping with the theme of court position, Davis also exposed a weakness of Halep’s Like Zverev, she doesn’t instinctively move forward, even when she has her opponent on the run; over the course of those 333 points, she made it to the net on just 13 of them. Instead, Halep gritted this one out from the back of the court. She ran far past the tram-lines to chase balls down, and she used her swinging wide serve in the deuce court to her advantage when she needed it. Down 0-40, triple match point, she didn’t miss.
“I’m almost dead,” Halep said with a smile after the 4-6, 6-4, 15-13 marathon. But after a massage later, she felt alive again, and happy about it.
“If I would have lost it, I would have been very sad, but now I have energy,” she said. “I have good thoughts.”
She should. Surviving match points is an encouraging sign at the Australian Open—Kerber and Li Na went on to win titles in Melbourne after saving them. Now Halep and Wozniacki, the No. 1 and 2 seeds, have both done it this year. Could we seen them face off next Saturday, with a chance to win their long-awaited first Grand Slam title?
Read Joel Drucker and Nina Pantic on TENNIS.com as they report from the Australian Open, and watch them each day on The Daily Mix:
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