PARIS—Court 1 at Roland Garros is called the Bullring because of its circular shape. By the midpoint of Alexander Zverev and Dusan Lajovic’s second-round match on Wednesday, the name also felt appropriate for what was happening inside the arena.
To the surprise of most, the bull on this occasion had turned out to be the second-seeded German, while the 60th-ranked Serb was playing the role of the matador. Lajovic was cutting, nicking, poking and slowly sinking Zverev, seemingly with his backhand alone.
Lajovic’s one-hander is one of the game’s most casually elegant shots. He can look as if he’s merely caressing the shot as he comes over it—until the ball leaves his strings and rockets through the court. To the exasperation of Zverev, Lajovic was doing a little bit of everything with the shot, all of it brilliantly.
He might win one point with a gently rolled backhand pass, the next with a delicately placed drop shot, the next with a bullet down the line. As the match passed the two-hour mark, a clean-clothed Lajovic led two sets to one, while Zverev, who had face-planted on the clay twice and nearly flown into the stands half a dozen times while trying to chase down a ball, was covered in red dirt.
Was this really happening again? Was Zverev, winner in Munich and Madrid, finalist in Rome, heir apparent to the Big 4 throne, really going to fail in best-of-five at a major one more time? As everyone with more than a passing interest in the sport knows, the 21-year-old has three Masters titles to his name, and wins over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, but he has yet to reach the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam.
The familiar issues had cropped up again. The tendency to back up into the nether reaches of the court. The tendency to grind rather than attack. The tendency to let an opponent hang around instead of going in for the kill. After losing the first set, Zverev played with urgency and energy in the second, but he couldn’t keep that emotional level up in the third.
Worse for Zverev, though, was how well Lajovic was playing. The German had the advantage of size and speed—his long legs carried him, spider-like, into the far corners of the Bullring, sometimes on multiple occasions during a single point. But Lajovic was able to neutralize that physical advantage with the artfulness of his shot-making. Whatever confidence the Serb had built up with a quarterfinal appearance in Madrid, and a semifinal run in Lyon, had obviously traveled to Paris with him.
The trouble with artful shot-making is that it’s difficult to keep up for five sets on clay. Lajovic reached his ball-striking peak in the middle of the third set, when he broke serve and held with a pair of huge backhand winners, and at the start of the fourth, when he went up 15-30 on Zverev’s serve with yet another backhand pass.
This time, though, Zverev stood firm and answered with a backhand winner of his own. When he held for 2-1, the Lajovic wave began to recede. In the next game, he was broken when one of his backhands finally went astray. Like many one-handers, Lajovic’s backhand was built for the brilliant winner, but not for the endless grind. The matador gave his bull one too many chances.
This time, maybe for the first time, it was Zverev who looked like the player who was built for the long haul. After losing the first and third sets, he didn’t panic; instead, he acted as if he knew that he was the better player, and that rather than hurting him, best-of-five would reward him, the way it tends to reward all better players. Two other matches that were going on concurrently on Wednesday afternoon—Kei Nishikori vs. Benoit Paire and Grigor Dimitrov vs. Jared Donaldson—both ended with the higher-seeded player coming back from two-set-to-one deficits to win in five, and so did Zverev vs. Lajovic. If the French were best-of-three, they all would have ended in upsets.
HIGHLIGHT: Match point, Zverev d. Lajovic
“For me, this is important because I’m still in the tournament,” Zverev said. “So I have a chance to still play here...I didn’t play my best the first three sets, I thought. Once I found my range and rhythm, I felt good out there.”
“My serve started working better. I started playing from the baseline much better.”
Still, Zverev admitted that the Slams are a different animal than other events.
“I’m not even going to lie,” he said, “it did feel different [at the majors], even in Australian Open, I did feel a difference.”
“I’m trying to do everything that I can to really enjoy the moments and enjoy playing on big courts, enjoy playing those great fights like I had today. As long as you’re enjoying your thing, I think the success will come itself.”
Today felt different for Zverev as well, but in a good way. He only advanced to the third round, but he survived a French Open rite of passage: an afternoon-long duel in the Bullring.
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