Over the past couple of years, the 20-year-old has won titles at a rather prolific pace. However, his play at the Grand Slam level has not coincided with his meteoric rise up the rankings. Despite winning five titles last year—two of them Masters 1000 events—and reaching finals on every surface, the German only made it as far as the round of 16 at one Grand Slam last year, Wimbledon. He won two tournaments on clay leading up to the French Open to establish himself as a favorite for the title, but lost in the first round to the veteran Fernando Verdasco. A similar run happened prior to the US Open, but Zverev fell in the round of 64 to fellow young talent Borna Coric.
Another peer, Hyeon Chung, upset Zverev at the Australian Open this year in the third round. Since the Miami Open, though, where Zverev reached the final, he’s been playing some of the best tennis of his burgeoning career. When the calendar turned to the spring clay-court stretch, Zverev didn’t miss a beat. He advanced to the semifinals in Monte Carlo, then won his next two tournaments in a row in Munich and the Masters event in Madrid, taking the title there without the loss of a set.
Zverev stretched his winning streak to 14 matches in a row by reaching the final in Rome, which he lost to Nadal. After dropping the first set, 6-1, the world No. 3 took the next set by an identical score. In the decider, Zverev built a 3-1 lead before multiple rain delays played a part in slowing his momentum. Nadal eventually won five games in a row to take the match and his third title of the season.
Still, it was an encouraging showing for Zverev as he had arguably the greatest clay-court player of all time on the ropes on his favorite surface. And if he was to suffer a loss, better to do it at this point, rather than at the French Open, where he’ll be entering uncharted territory.
With Roger Federer’s decision not to play the French Open this year, Zverev has been bumped up to the No. 2 spot in the draw, his highest seeding at a major. Had he won that Rome final and given his lofty place in the standings, the pressure would have been magnified for him to make a strong showing at the tournament. Coming in to the event on the heels of a loss already appears to have made him hungrier for success: his first-round dismantling of Richard Berankis, where he only dropped four games over three sets, reveals a level of focus and belief in his own abilities that he hasn’t shown yet at the Grand Slam level.
WATCH—Match point from Zverev's win over Berankis in the first round of the French Open: