“I was actually looking at the scoreboard when I was down two sets to love, and I can’t believe it,” Alexander Zverev told ESPN’s Brad Gilbert after his 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 win over Pablo Carreño Busta at the US Open on Friday. “I’m playing in the semifinal, where I’m supposed to be the favorite and I’m down two sets to love, and I have no chance, I’m playing that bad.”
“I can’t believe it” is probably what a lot of people were saying to themselves as they watched this strange trip of a semi. Just like every other match at this year’s US Open, there were no fans in the stands in Arthur Ashe Stadium to see it. But this time there was a stunned quality to the silence in the arena. Even the empty seats seemed dumbfounded by the events they were witnessing.
“Strange,” yes; surprising, no. Zverev is famous for confounding all expectations, both positive and negative, in best-of-five-set matches. He tends to start slowly in the extended format, but rarely has he started this slowly against a lower-ranked opponent. In the opening game, he stoned a volley and faced a break point. At 1-2, he was broken when he shanked an easy backhand. He was broken again at 1-4, and again to start the second set, on a backhand winner from Carreño Busta.
Zverev seemed to hit rock bottom when he double faulted two straight times and was broken for 0-3. But then he fell even further when he was broken one more time for 0-5. Between points, Zverev walked slowly, tentatively, pensively, like a man trying to figure out how it had all gone so wrong, and where he had misplaced his game.
Yet even during that disastrous opening hour, Zverev showed signs of life at the end of each set. It was too late for him to win them, but he did show that a turnaround was still theoretically possible. When Zverev finally broke back at 0-5 in the second set, his trainer, Jez Green, held his palms up, as if to say, “Where has that been all day?”
Typically, as Zverev’s serve goes, so goes his game. And his serve began to go—for aces and unreturnables—at the start of the third set. The love holds began to flow, while Carreño Busta, who at 29 has never reached a Grand Slam final, began to retreat into his defensive shell. Zverev wasn’t exactly a freight train from that point on; he was still capable of throwing in two more very bad service games early in the third and fourth sets. But he no longer looked so lost between points, and he no longer looked so tight during them. The 23-year-old had never come from two sets down before, but he had come back from two sets to one down six times. He understands that the format allows for slow starts and patches of patchy play.
“I knew I had to come up with better tennis,” Zverev said, “and I knew that I had to be more stable.”
Carreño Busta still had a chance at 3-3 in the fourth set. But even as Zverev began to invade the front court, PCB couldn’t mount a defense. Serving at 3-3, he put a routine backhand into the net and sent a routine forehand long. Zverev broke with a huge smash, and, when he broke again in the opening game of the fifth set, he was home free. By the end, as he rained down 130-m.p.h. second serves, he had made a 180-degree turn from this first-set self.
“I wasn’t winning many second serve points,” Zverev said of his 130 bombs, “so I had to change something.”
It must be nice to have that “something” in your back pocket. Zverev finished with 24 aces and 71 winners, and he lost just seven points on his first serve over the last three sets. He came to net 50 times, and despite covering 13,355 feet over the course of the the contest, he looked stronger at the end than he did at the start.
“I’ve never come back from two sets to love down,” Zverev said. “It was the first time in my career, but I’m happy to do it at this stage, semi of a Slam, couldn’t be happier.”
This scratchy, nebulous match wasn’t a classic, and it’s hard to say that Zverev “stormed” back from two sets down. Carreño Busta, who had finished another five-setter late Wednesday night against Denis Shapovalov, offered precious little resistance over the last three sets. But this was always the way that Zverev—often inexplicable, but just as often difficult to finish off—was going to reach his first major final. Now the question is: Can he confound his way to a Grand Slam title?