LONDON—The old adage that a delay will help the player who’s losing resurfaced with a vengeance Friday afternoon. The prior evening, on Wimbledon’s No. 1 Court One, fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev had lost a third-set tiebreaker to fall behind 68th-ranked Taylor Fritz two sets to one. Today, in just over an hour, Zverev surrendered a measly three games to run past his once-dangerous opponent, 6-4, 5-7, 6-7 (0), 6-1, 6-2.
Fritz had competed superbly on Thursday, particularly in the later stages. With the match deadlocked at a set apiece and leveled at 6-all in the third, the 20-year-old American played a tiebreaker for the ages, sweeping all seven points. The run included a spectrum of winners‚backhand volley, backhand groundstroke, an untouchable forehand on set point that happened to be Fritz’s 36th winner of the match. In contemporary parlance, Fritz was feeling it, one set away from a breakthrough win.
As he has in many a Slam, Zverev struggled. Hindered by a stomach virus Thursday, Zverev threw up after the second set and didn’t eat following the delay of play. Zverev also noted that the fading light was such that it was difficult for him to see the ball.
WATCH—Match point from Zverev's win over Fritz:
On Friday afternoon, the atmosphere on No. 1 Court was subdued. The 6’4” Fritz and 6’6” Zverev didn’t so much as stride onto the court as roll on to it, as if each had woken up 30 minutes prior. Such is the lumbering, or coiled, manner of tall athletes: languid, unrushed, more panther than pit bull.
Once the match began, the difference truly was night and day; a shift with genuine tennis implications. Thursday night, with no sun and in a crisp early evening, Fritz felt supremely comfortable, dialed-in on his serve, smoothly flowing through his groundstrokes.
“He was letting me dictate the points,” said Fritz.
On Friday afternoon, serving from the north side of the court represented a major challenge—at least for Fritz, who said he’d always struggled serving into the sun. Fritz also admitted that he knew Zverev would return to the court primed to counterattack.
That was an understatement. With the score tied 1-1, Zverev won 20 of 23 points.
“I stepped in because, as I said, I was seeing the ball much better,” said Zverev.
In theory, the fifth set would intrigue. Fritz had lost all three of his prior five-setters, but surely the combination of an evening of sleep and warm conditions would be encouraging. Zverev was in recently charted territory, having won three five-setters at Roland Garros. The question: Where those Paris struggles and eventual victories proof of determination, or sloth?
Fritz briefly picked himself up as the fifth set got underway, fighting off three break points to hold and go up 1-0. Two games later, disaster, a trio of forehand errors—shank, wide, long—that in turn handed Zverev the break. That was all Zverev needed to run away with the match.
“I was returning much better,” said Zverev, “because it was brighter. From the baseline, I was hitting it big. Maybe rushed him a little bit more. Didn't give him as much time.”
So here was Zverev, once again struggling early at a major, once again grubbing out a five-setter. As happened during Roland Garros, at the high-stakes occasions, this potential star continues to baffle.
As for Fritz, he had looked so much the contender Thursday night. But had it really been possible that the mere presence of sunshine had transformed him from formidable opponent to sparring partner?
“I just missed, out barely on some chances here and there,” said Fritz. “I just need that little more, a little more here and there, a little more here and there.”
Strokes of Genius is a world-class documentary capturing the historic 13-year rivalry between tennis icons Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. It is timed for release as the anticipation crests with Roger as returning champion, 10 years after their famed 2008 Wimbledon championship – an epic match so close and so reflective of their competitive balance that, in the end, the true winner was the sport itself.