Zverev led his old friend from juniors 6-0, 3-0. The German had hit with pace and depth, served his way out of a couple of jams, and controlled the rallies by standing closer to the baseline than he normally does. Whatever pace Rublev had thrown at him, Zverev had absorbed it and thrown it back with added pace and better placement. This, in short, was the Zverev that the tennis world has spent much of the last two years waiting to see, the one who could combine a Djokovichian all-around solidity from the baseline with the service power of someone 6-foot-6. After nine games, it looked like a double bagel was on the menu; all Rublev could do was offer sarcastic, hopeless laughter in response.
But then the other Zverev, the more recent Zverev, the one with a penchant for keeping his opponents in matches they should no longer be in, returned to offer Rublev a lifeline. Up a set and a break, Zverev took a step back from the baseline; he started service games with double faults; he came to net on the wrong shots and chose the wrong volleys; his ground strokes grew tentative. He was broken at 3-1 and again when he served for the match at 5-3. In a matter of minutes, a rout had turned into a dogfight.
Sometimes, in these cases, the player with the lead needs a little good fortune—mixed with skill, of course—to finally push him across the finish line. And that was the case with Zverev today. He went up 5-3 in the second-set tiebreaker, and then immediately became tentative again, letting Rublev dominate a point to make it 4-5. In the next rally, Zverev tried a slice backhand. But he also managed to put a lot of sidespin on the ball. It bounced away from Rublev, who hit his next forehand short. This time Zverev didn’t hesitate; he moved forward and won the point with an aggressive forehand. And he won the next point with a running backhand pass to close out a more-complicated-than-it-needed-to-be, 6-0, 7-6 (4) win.
What would have happened if that slice backhand hadn’t spun away from his opponent? We’ll never know now; matches, and entire seasons, have been turned around with less. Zverev obviously hasn’t had the season he wanted to have. After winning the ATP’s year-end event in London last year, he has mostly treaded water over the last 10 months. He’s 39-20 in 2019; that wouldn’t be bad, except that the expectations for the 22-year-old were so much higher. What has been missing more than anything for Zverev is a signature win over a big-name player—he’s 0-4 against Top 10 opponents this year. On Friday, he’ll get another chance to beat a big name, and potentially finish his year on an upswing, when he faces Roger Federer.