The most shocking event during the first week of the 2020 Australian Open wasn’t Serena Williams’ loss to Wang Qiang, or Nick Kyrgios playing his heart out for 4.5 hours. It was Alexander Zverev going an entire match without making a single double fault.
You read that right; in his second round match against Egor Gerasimov, Zverev sent down 19 second serves that all landed in the court.
Egor who, you ask? It’s a legitimate question. Zverev’s opponents in his first three rounds – the clay-loving Marco Cecchinato, the virtually unknown Egor Gerasimov, and the injured Fernando Verdasco – wouldn’t exactly make for a lineup of world-beaters. But the fact that Zverev managed to regain some measure of control over his serve as he waded through the lightweight draw had to be seen as a huge positive.
The full effects of his steady climb upward from the pits of double-fault hell were visible on Monday, as Zverev dusted off Andrey Rublev 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to advance to his first ever Australian Open quarter-final. It was a performance as authoritative as any he has ever produced at a Slam, and a reminder that we shouldn’t write him off just yet.
“It felt good from start to finish,” Zverev said after the match. “Obviously, it’s nice to get a win like that against a quality player…I’m happy with how it went.”
This was a far cry from his comments right before the Australian Open, when he seemed clueless how to land a serve in the court. At a changeover during ATP Cup Zverev was overheard telling his team coach Boris Becker, “I don’t understand it. I just can’t hit a proper serve. Fuck me.”
It was a pointed summary of the German’s inexplicable dilemma, and his expletive-laden frustration was understandable given how his serving woes led to three straight losses at the tournament.
Zverev committed a staggering 31 double faults in those three matches, continuing the pattern set last year – where he would suddenly lose the shape on his second serve for no rhyme or reason.
In the short break between the ATP Cup and the Australian Open, Zverev knew what he needed to work on. But he had so little time to fix such a serious problem that he was forced to double his training hours – to seven hours a day.
“I need to get my tennis back because how I was playing at the ATP Cup was just not going to be good enough to do well at a Grand Slam,” Zverev had said ahead of the Australian Open. “I know that, my team knows that, my coaching staff knows that. The hours are in now. Now it's just about getting the final preparations right.”
Zverev had also added that his hours on the court were like a ‘training block’ that’s typical of the off-season, rather than the usual light practice sessions that players go through in the lead-up to a Slam. It was anybody’s guess how eschewing his normal preparation methods would affect his game and stamina once the Australian Open started.
But according to the 22-year-old, getting back his feel for the ball was more important than managing his workload. And his feel for the ball on the serve had gone haywire so badly, that no amount of drills seemed enough.
“When something doesn't work in practice, that's when it doesn't work in matches,” he had said. “It (the serve) was just bad with the timing. It was just off. Normally when it gets better in practice, it also will automatically get better on the match court. Maybe not in the first match or the first set, but I think gradually it will improve as well on the match court.”
Those words seem almost prescient now, because against Rublev on Monday Zverev’s serve certainly showed a lot of improvement. He got 75 percent of his first serves in, won 91 percent of those points, and didn’t face a single break point all match. And the double faults? Just three, with a 61 percent winning rate on the second serve.
His serve taken care of, it didn’t take long for the rest of Zverev’s game to start flowing too. At the start of the match he seemed content to rally conservatively with Rublev, but once his confidence increased he started going after his backhand – just like he used to in 2018. The crosscourt version was as solid as ever, and the down-the-line screamer made several appearances too. Mid-way through the match he rifled an inch-perfect backhand pass from so wide of the tramlines, that it left both Rublev and the spectators stunned.
But perhaps the biggest takeaway for Zverev from this match was the tactical astuteness he displayed to quell the challenge of the most in-form player on tour. Rublev had won 15 consecutive matches going into the fourth round, and his groundstroke patterns had started looking so impregnable that many believed he would comfortably bully Zverev in the long rallies. Perhaps Zverev himself thought so, because he refused to get sucked into a war of attrition from the baseline.
He changed direction frequently off both wings, and even used the slice and drop shot to great effect. This was the kind of aggressive counter-punching that Zverev had seemingly perfected when he was climbing through the ranks two years ago, and by executing it again on Monday he never allowed Rublev to settle into a rhythm.
To be fair the Russian did make an unusually large number of errors in the match; perhaps fatigue played a part in his shoddy performance. But it is debatable whether he’d have managed to change the result even if he was playing at his best; when Zverev is serving as well as he was today, it’s tough for anyone to stay with him.
By the end of the match, Zverev was even thumping forehand winners into the corners, and that was when it became clear he wanted to make a statement. With Daniil Medvedev’s loss earlier in the day, Zverev is now the last man standing from the NextGen. Why wouldn’t he want to drive home how wrong everyone was about his chances in Melbourne, by hammering one winner after another past a hapless Rublev?
Once the demolition job was complete though, Zverev assumed a far less aggressive air. He and Rublev are childhood friends, and their warm embrace at the net showed just how happy they were to be playing matches at this level together.
“I’ve known him since I’m 10 years old,” Zverev said later. “So I just reminded him how far we’ve got together. A lot of juniors, a lot of young kids would dream about playing fourth round of a Grand Slam against one of his best friends.”
And what did Zverev think was the reason behind his sudden and unexpected resurgence? “Maybe the environment, a little bit,” he said. “I think everybody is happy – my dad is happy, my team is happy … and that makes life a lot easier. You play well when you feel well outside the court.”
Zverev has certainly been playing well this week in Melbourne, and his reward is a place in the quarterfinals against Stan Wawrinka. But for Zverev’s long-suffering fans, the sight of his impressive second serve stats must make it feel like he has won the tournament already.
An Alexander Zverev match where the double fault count isn’t in the double digits? You’ve got to be kidding me.
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Updated Date: Jan 27, 2020 21:06:21 IST