Alexander Zverev didn’t waste anyone’s time when he was asked what he thought made the difference in his 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 loss to Fernando Verdasco at the French Open on Tuesday.

“I played absolute s--- made the difference,” Zverev said. “It’s quite simple.”

The German’s loss to the Spaniard surprised many, as most first-round defeats by a No. 9 seed will. But when the draw was made, I thought the 20-year-old German was in an ambiguous position. He was the field’s biggest dark horse, but he also the player most likely to have a letdown.

Yes, Zverev was coming off the most productive month of his young career. He had his won first two clay-court titles and his first Masters 1000, and he had saved the best for last with his eye-popping straight-set win over Novak Djokovic in the Rome final. Zverev has been touted as a future No. 1, and he appeared to be right on schedule. His victory at the Foro Italico sent him into the Top 10 for the first time.

Yet before this year Zverev had played Roland Garros just once, and he has never been past the third round at any major. While he has shot up to 6’6”, he has yet to fill out. His results over the last two years at the Slams had stayed stagnant, even as they improved everywhere else. Winning best-of-five-setters, one after the other, still seemed to be step too far for him.

Zverev’s loss to Verdasco didn’t have anything to do with conditioning. It was his first match after a week off, and it was played over two days. As Zverev so colorfully said, the defeat had more to do with his “s---”—I mean sub-par—form. His final service game pretty much summed up the confused and indecisive way he had played. At 15-15, Zverev floated a drop shot to the middle of the court that Verdasco easily knocked off for a winner. At 15-30, he tried a rare and risky serve-and-volley play that resulted, predictably, in a miss. And at 15-40, he drilled a routine forehand into the net. If there was a shot that hurt Zverev the most, it was his forehand.


But it wasn’t just Zverev’s level of play that decided this one; it was the contrast between his still-youthful game and his veteran opponent’s. Coming into the match, I didn’t doubt that Zverev could have a letdown, but I did have my doubts that Verdasco could make him pay for it if he did.

While Verdasco will never be famous for his tactical acumen, at 33 he knows what he does well, and what he does well is hit forehands. While Zverev sent balls to both corners and changed direction seemingly at random, Verdasco established a very basic and effective pattern and stuck with it: He moved Zverev wide with his forehand, and then snapped the next forehand down the line and into the open court. More often than not, it was enough.

Compare that to Zverev’s approach. While Verdasco tried to hug the baseline, Zverev let himself drift far behind it. This is always his tendency, but Court Philippe Chatrier's vast spaces—it has one of the world’s largest playing surfaces—encouraged him to give up too much ground and roam too far. (The court has the same too-much-of-a-good-thing effect on that great French roamer, Gael Monfils.)

Last week in Rome, I liked the way Zverev had thrown off Djokovic’s rhythm by varying his position from one shot to the next; he would drift back for one and then ghost forward to take the next one much earlier. Against Verdasco, though, Zverev hit lots of impressive individual strokes, but failed to put them together to any greater purpose. As strong as he is, and as hard as he can hit his two-handed backhand, he was usually too far back in the court to hurt Verdasco with it. And when Verdasco offered up a cream puff second serve at a crucial moment, Zverev didn’t bolt forward to gobble it up or apply any pressure. He was content to take everything from behind the baseline.

“It’s my 14th year,” a smiling Verdasco told the crowd afterward, “so it’s a pleasure for me to be playing here still. I’ve been practicing very hard, and a little bit of that work came through.”

Zverev said afterward that the season is long and it doesn’t end in Paris. He’s right, and this loss won’t stop him from leading the NextGen pack, or throw off his rise up the rankings for long. But it does show that the men’s game, and especially the Grand Slams, remains a country for old(er) men. While Zverev and the 23-year-old Dominic Thiem made inroads this spring, now that we’re in Paris, it’s the 32-year-old Stan Wawrinka who appears to be the real dark-horse pick for the title.

Zverev has all the shots, and no easily exploitable weaknesses. But what wins you matches are the unbeatable strokes, the ones that you can go back to over and over, and that an opponent struggles to defend. Zverev could learn from Verdasco that all the shots in the world don’t do you much good if you can’t form them into basic, repeatable, effective patterns.

The difference, as Zverev said, really was quite simple, but it was Verdasco who had mastered that simplicity.

Tennis Channel's Daily Serve recaps Day 3 at Roland Garros:

For complete coverage of the 2017 French Open, including 200 live matches from up to five courts, subscribe today at