NEW YORK—Alexander Zverev, serving at 3-1 in the fifth set in his second-round match against Frances Tiafoe on Thursday, rifled a forehand down the line for a winner. Someone in the crowd nearby was so surprised and impressed that he yelled out “Wow!” It was as if, even after watching Zverev play for three hours, in a match in which he would hit 63 winners, he couldn’t believe how cleanly he had just struck the ball.
The fan’s reaction wasn’t all that surprising。 Zverev’s forehand really was one of the best he had hit all afternoon。 A couple of points later, he followed it up with one of his hardest serves of the day。 Apparently, it was also a surprise: the ball hit the line judge at the back of the court smack in the face。
Welcome to Zverev’s world, where it has become the norm for him to take a full five sets to find his range. He won one five-setter at this year’s Australian Open, two at the French Open, and now, after his 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-2 win over Frances Tiafoe today, he has won his second straight marathon at Flushing Meadows. Which is strange, because in the past the knock against the German was that he couldn’t win at the majors, when the format expanded to best-of-five. This year, though, at a time when his confidence has plummeted, he’s 5-0 in five-setters.
“I’ve been here before,” Zverev said with a smile after beating Tiafoe.
Zverev’s words carried a double meaning, one positive and one negative. On the plus side, he has been winning these types of matches in the early rounds at Slams; on the minus side, he has also been dragging them out, and draining himself, unnecessarily.
Today was characteristic。 Zverev jumped to a 3-0 lead and won the first routinely。 But rather than seizing the advantage and pinning his opponent down, he dropped farther behind the baseline in the second set and let Tiafoe take the initiative。 The same pattern developed in the third and fourth sets, when Zverev took control only to cede it again。 Finally, early in the fifth, with a break point, he found the nerve to hit out on a down-the-line backhand。 Like the fan in the stands a few minutes later, Tiafoe was taken by surprise。 When he swung late and put the ball in the net, Zverev let out his first real, unrestrained roar of the afternoon。 This time he wouldn’t give the lead back。
A month ago at Wimbledon, after a first-round defeat, Zverev summed up his subpar season.
“It was kind of a typical Grand Slam match for me,” he said. “I started off well, then one or two things don’t go my way, and everything kind of a little bit falls apart.”
“It’s just, yeah, my confidence is below zero right now.”
While he’s still ranked No. 6, coming into the Open Zverev was just 30-17 on the season with one title. Respectable stuff by normal measures, but not for a 22-year-old long touted as the ATP’s next No. 1 player and Slam-winning star. As of last November, when he won the tour’s year-end championships in London, Zverev seemed to be on track. But a one-sided loss to Milos Raonic got the year started on a down note, and protracted, distracting entanglements with former coach Ivan Lendl, and his agent, have left him mentally depleted. Over the last seven months, whatever held him back at the Slams has started holding him back everywhere else.
Zverev wouldn’t have been my first choice for someone who would suffer from a crisis of confidence. Until this year, he generally carried himself like the ATP’s heir apparent, the prince waiting to be crowned. Watching him today, I wondered which was the more important factor in his current slump: his confidence or his playing style. Zverev has a game perfectly suited for the past decade.
Like Novak Djokovic, Zverev s comfortable rallying, but at 6'6", the German isn’t as quick or consistent as the Serb, and when he can’t out-rally an opponent he has trouble finding a way to break open a point and go on the attack. Today, when Zverev made contact inside the baseline, he almost invariably won the point. But his natural instinct, even when he has an opponent out of position, is to stay in the same spot and continue the rally, rather than to take a step forward and try to end it.
There are a lot of ways to lose confidence, and a lot of times when it can happen. Most players lose it when they fall behind. Zverev seems to do the opposite: He loses it when he’s ahead, and, as he said at Wimbledon, “one or two things don’t go my way.” The shots that once seemed destined to take him to No. 1 are still there; we could see it in that “Wow!” forehand today in the fifth set, and we could see it in the 22 aces he hit (which helpfully off-set his 11 double faults). Zverev just needs to find a way to start hitting them before the fifth set.
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