Yesterday at the Mutua Madrid Open, Dominic Thiem was able to fight back from a set down to win his quarterfinal match versus John Isner. Today, in the semis against Alexander Zverev, there was no such escape: Zverev beat Thiem 6-3, 6-4 to reach the finals in Madrid for the second time, having won it three years ago.

For Zverev, back-to-back victories over Rafael Nadal and Thiem—the top two claycourters of recent years—revealed impressive fitness and focus. “It’s been so far a good week for me,” he said.

While Isner and Zverev share an asset in ownership of a big serve, a critical difference in determining Thiem’s fate came at the same stage: the last game of the first set, each man serving at 5-3. Isner capped it off with four straight aces—a virtuoso display, but hardly the kind of quotidian, sustainable tennis that can carry a player to victory. As Hall of Famer Mats Wilander once told me, “Aces? Aces I can write off and just say ‘too good.’ But make me play more and then you get into my head.” In lieu of the air game, Zverev took to the ground at 5-3, punishing Thiem with depth and pace to rapidly go up 40-love and seal the set at 15.

Swirling wind—coupled with what appeared to be blisters on his right hand—hardly helped Thiem either. His shots lacked their customary weight, including more slice backhands than usual and fewer moments when Thiem ran around his backhand to drive his forehand.

Though this match hardly advanced his quest, Thiem will remain a significant contender at Roland-Garros. “In general I'm super happy with the week,” said Thiem. “I would have never expected to be in the semifinals, to play in the semifinals a player like him. I cannot complain about anything.”

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Alexander Zverev avenges US Open defeat over Thiem, into Madrid final

Alexander Zverev avenges US Open defeat over Thiem, into Madrid final

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Zverev continued to play solidly through the first five games of the second set, earning a double break to serve at 4-1.

But then came moments of tension. Serving at 4-1, 15-all, Zverev inexplicably opted to serve and volley on two straight points and shortly lost his serve. The next game lasted 12 minutes. On four occasions, Zverev earned and lost a break point. Thiem held. Now Zverev served at 4-3.

Not since last fall’s US Open final had these two played one another. Zverev then had led two sets to love and 5-3 in the fifth, but eventually lost in a decisive tiebreaker. That win gave Thiem an 8-2 lead in their rivalry.

But there would be no meltdown for Zverev in Madrid. One of his two wins versus Thiem had come here three years ago in the finals. Likely that memory was more comforting than the anguish of New York. Serving at 4-3, Zverev hunkered down with big serves and groundstrokes. His serve was even more impressive in the 5-4 game, opening up with two unreturnable deliveries. At 40-15, the combination of a drop shot and a forehand passing shot winner finished off the match.

Zverev plays the winner of the semifinal between Casper Ruud and Matteo Berrettini. He’s never played Ruud and is 2-1 against Berrettini.

“The job is not done yet," Zverev said. "Tomorrow I have a very difficult opponent no matter who it's going to be. I hope I can continue playing and performing the way I am.”

As Roland Garros nears, what to make of Zverev? Though he has danced among the elite for some time now—finishing each of the last four years in the Top 10—only in 2020, in Melbourne, did Zverev advance to his first Grand Slam semifinal.

His last three trips to Paris span generations. In 2018, having reached a Slam quarter for the first time, he went out to a near-peer, Thiem. The next year, Zverev as eliminated in the quarters by a superior elder, Novak Djokovic. But last fall, perhaps still physically and emotionally drained from his US Open run, Zverev lost in the round of 16 to a younger player, Jannik Sinner.

Zverev is still just 23 years old. He also started off 2021 well. At the Australian Open, Zverev reached the quarters, losing to Djokovic, 7-6 in the fourth. A month later, he won the title in Acapulco, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the finals to earn his 14th ATP singles title.

Still, when it comes to the majors, Zverev continues to occupy the fork in the road between frequent contention and grand ascension.

Alexander Zverev avenges US Open defeat over Thiem, into Madrid final

Alexander Zverev avenges US Open defeat over Thiem, into Madrid final