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Alexander Zverev reaches Roland Garros semifinals for the first time
The German has been aided in the last two years by a new attitude he’s taken to competing at the majors.
Published Jun 08, 2021
For the second straight match, Alexander Zverev validated a major premise of this year’s competition at Roland Garros: Be it veteran or youth, in the second week of a major for the 22nd time or the first, when you arrive to play Zverev, you better be fresh.
Sunday evening, Zverev dispatched 31-year-old Kei Nishikori, 6-4, 6-1, 6-1. In today’s quarterfinal match, he beat 22-year-old Alejandro Davidovich Fokina by the same score. In the rounds leading up to their matches with Zverev, Nishikori and Davidovich Fokina had each played two five-setters. In both cases, the erosion was obvious, at times even painful. But based on how well Zverev has been hitting the ball—including off his usually weaker forehand—a more rested opponent might not have fared much better.
Over the course of this 96-minute rout, Davidovich Fokina’s depleted condition triggered everything from meager serving to the kind of shot-making decisions—such as repeated drives down the line—that usually signal the end of points. A player hopes to win at least 50 percent of his second serve points. Davidovich Fokina won a scant 48 percent of points played on his first serve. His second serve yield was even worse—31 percent. The Spaniard, who turned 22 last Saturday, committed 37 unforced errors and struck only 16 winners.
Zverev’s only hiccups came in the first set. With Davidovich Fokina serving at 1-2, Zverev held a break point and strongly believed one of his opponent’s shots should have been called wide. He pleaded his case to Alison Hughes and remained distraught enough to lose that game and be broken in the next. It was the kind of emotional brittleness that can so unfortunately compromise this talented player’s chances in big matches. In the fourth game of the match, are you kidding me?
But Davidovich Fokina hardly had the tools or the fitness to take advantage of Zverev’s fragility. Zverev broke back immediately and soon served for the first set at 5-3. Here again, he blinked, dropping his serve. Rescue arrived in the next game, in the form of solid tennis from Zverev and sloppy play from Davidovich Fokina, including a double fault at 30-all and, at set point, the Spanish tennis equivalent of a felony, a groundstroke lined into the net. His legs and mind in little state to continue, Davidovich Fokina was barely present in the next two sets.
Assessing the quality of Zverev’s play is tricky. Zverev lost the first two sets of his first round match versus qualifier Oscar Otte before winning 18 of the next 22 games, including a fifth-set bagel. Since then, on his way to the semis, Zverev has yet to lose a set. Then again, his highest-ranked opponent has been the 46th-ranked Davidovich Fokina. Zverev’s first two victims were ranked outside the Top 100. Of course none of that is Zverev’s fault. As he said, “Ranking is one thing, but they’re also there for a reason, right?” Certainly that’s true, but it would be easier to get a handle on Zverev’s tennis had he been forced to get past such rough-and-tumble mainstays as Adrian Mannarino or, my personal favorite, the enduring Philipp Kohlschreiber.
But here, Zverev is in the semis of Roland Garros for the first time, aided in the last two years by a new attitude he’s taken to competing at the majors. Said Zverev, “Before, maybe the last few years, I was putting too much pressure on myself. Also obviously in the media I was seen, before Medvedev and Tsitsipas arrived, I was seen as this guy that was going to all of a sudden take over the tennis world. I was putting pressure on myself as well. I was not very patient with myself, which I feel like now maybe I learned how to deal with the situation a little bit better, I'm maybe a little bit calmer at the tournaments. But the end goal hasn't changed.”
Perhaps the the biggest opponent Zverev has conquered in recent times has been himself. “Look, I mean, for a long period of time I was winning Masters Series, the World Tour Finals, but I couldn't get quite deep in Grand Slams,” he said. “Yes, I was putting bricks on myself. In a way I was not performing to the level that I was in other tournaments. I was not playing the same level. I was very unpatient with myself.”
To this point, increased patience is paying off.