PARIS—Alexander Zverev kept burying shots into the net and spinning around to stare up at his player box. The look on his face was one of utter stupefaction: How is this happening again?
It was all happening again for Zverev as he fell behind two sets to one against Karen Khachanov in Court Suzanne Lenglen on Sunday: The slow start, the defensive play, the inability to harness any momentum or make anything come easily. The biggest mystery coming into the 2018 French Open—what’s wrong with Zverev at the majors?—only seemed to be deepening. The last person who had an answer was Zverev himself.
Yet when it came to this fourth-round match, there was a very simple reason that it wasn’t going Zverev’s way. Through the first three sets and into the fourth, Khachanov was the better player. The Russian hit harder, he played farther up in the court, he took more risks and reaped the rewards. By comparison, the German was ranging deep behind the baseline and sending up spinny, loopy forehands that were waiting to be pounded. When it came to that all-important stat—points won on second serves—Khachanov was the guy who was able to back his up. Even after sneaking his way through the second-set tiebreaker to level the match at a set all, Zverev’s game quickly went south again in the third.
Karen Khachanov (Photo by Anita Aguilar)
Was Zverev tight? He has admitted this week that the Slams “feel different,” and it would hardly be surprising, with all the talk about his sub-par performances at them, that he feels more pressure here than he does at other tournaments. In the second round, he let 60th-ranked Dusan Lajovic bully him for three sets, and in the third round he let 29th-ranked Damir Dzumhur weave a drop-shot web around him. None of that had happened to Zverev in his previous three events this spring, when he knocked off everyone not named Rafael Nadal. Beating the players you should beat at the most important events is a challenge that every top player must master.
But there’s another, more positive side to that kind of pressure, and it has to do with the word “should” in the sentence above. Yes, being the favorite in a match can make you nervous, but knowing that you should win—not that you can win, but that, all things being normal, you should win—can also help you hang on longer than the opponent who is trying to pull an upset. For the first time at a major, Zverev is playing like a man who believes he should win these matches. No matter how badly he’s performing, or how dire the score looks, he’s hanging on for dear life—sometimes with the help of a netcord or two—and giving himself a chance to prove he’s the better player.
Zverev’s win over Khachanov lasted three and a half hours and involved 302 points, but as Khachanov said later, “it was just a few points difference.” There was the long rally at 5-4 in the second-set tiebreaker that ended with a Khachanov forehand finding the net. There was the netcord forehand that helped Zverev save break point at 2-2 in the fourth set. There was the Khachanov forehand at break point at 3-5 in the fourth that clipped the tape and, instead of going for a winner, somehow jumped over the baseline by an inch. Zverev was also helped when, at 3-2 in the fourth set, the chair umpire gave him a warning for coaching, despite the fact that he was on the other side of the arena from his team. Irritated, Zverev won the next two points to break.
WATCH: Zverev's match point against Khachanov
“Beginning of the fourth set, I thought, ‘OK, I can turn this match around, especially when I saved a few break points,” Zverev said. “You know, kind of went my way a little bit. Gave me confidence.”
Still, it wasn’t just good fortune that won Zverev this match. He won it with defense; think of the scrambling he did, and the shoe-top forehand pass that he came up with, to break in the opening game of the fifth set. He won because he was more opportunistic, and had more stamina; while Khachanov controlled most of the rallies, Zverev finished with more winners (63 to 45), and he was fresher down the stretch. And he won because, once he had the lead, he closed with confidence; in the fifth set, Zverev found his first serve, and finished with 17 aces.
Three straight times now, Zverev has come back from two sets to one down to win; three straight times, in other words, he would have been eliminated from a best-of-three tournament, the type of tournament where he has traditionally thrived. Can a player struggle in the best-of-five format even as he masters it? Zverev may let us know by the end of this week.
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