PARIS—The place was familiar. Painfully familiar. Perhaps even fatally familiar. There was Alexander Zverev, trying to reach the fourth round of a major for only the second time in his career. Losing in the third round of the Australian Open earlier this year—a miserable fifth-set bagel versus Hyeon Chung—Zverev had vowed to improve on the game's biggest stages.
But there he was again, in the place, the abyss lurking. There was the matter of an inspired opponent, 29th-ranked Damir Dzumhur, lashing out at groundstrokes, generating enough depth to push Zverev into remote corners of the court and tossing in repeated drop shots, all the better to expose the No. 2 seed's severe shortcomings in the front part of the court.
“That's what he does," said Zverev. "That's what he's known for. A lot of drop shots, and the drop shots he was hitting were kind of ridiculous.”
All of Dzumhur's lashing and dropping brought him to the brink of a breakthrough win before he would succumb, 6-2, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (3), 7-5, six minutes short of four hours. Dzumhur had served for the match at 6-5 in the fourth set, only to drop serve at love and go down 5-1 in the tiebreak—nine of ten points lost, before losing the set altogether.
Dzumhur didn't go away, but he never went ahead for good. The top-ranked Bosnian rallied from 2-4 down in the fifth set to win three straight games and hold a match point, with Zverev serving at 4-5, 30-40—an opportunity nullified with a forceful service winner aimed at the Dzumhur backhand.
WATCH: Match point, Zverev d. Dzumhur
It was yet another complicated chapter in the Sascha Saga. Wasn’t this supposed to be the major where he, at last, stepped up? If not necessarily a Slam champion, surely making it to the round of 16 was plausible. Zverev had most recently reached the final in Rome, taking a 3-1 third set versus Rafael Nadal before losing after a rain delay. The 21-year-old's other recent results—titles on clay in Munich and Madrid—had helped him earn the second seed at Roland Garros.
But against Dzumhur, passivity once again threatened to derail Zverev. After taking the first set 6-2 in 26 minutes, he’d meekly surrendered the next two. Deep into the fourth, Zverev served at 4-all, love-40. While Zverev looked ineffectual and downright annoyed, Dzumhur was the one stretching the contours of the court, jubilant perhaps also with memories of their only previous match, one won by Dzumhur last fall in Shenzhen, 6-4, 7-5.
“It was really special, special match for me," said Dzumhur, despite the loss. "The whole stadium was just amazing, and I just felt that energy from the crowd. And I really liked it. I enjoyed the whole match.”
Asked about the inner battles inside his head, Zverev offered an answer at once candid and curious.
“Mainly I was thinking what I was going to have for lunch at times,” he said. “But, I mean, as I said, you try to win each point, you try to win each game. When you're down a match point, you're not thinking, 'Oh, how am I going to turn this match around?' You're trying to win that exact point to be able to continue the match. That's more what's going on in your head.”
But for the second straight match, Zverev had found himself down two sets to one and rallied to win.
“I was feeling fine physically, so for me that gives me a lot of confidence going deep into the fifth set, going long matches on this kind of surface," said Zverev. "And knowing that I'm fit enough to last as long as I want. So this gives me a lot of confidence, of course, and I think it was an important point to prove to myself, as well.”
But was encountering that situation once again—in today’s case, one point away from elimination—a weakness-revealing predicament or a strength-revealing rite of passage?
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