When it comes to playing tennis on clay, beyond the regular requirements of having the skill and talent, there are two additional facets needed. You have to have the heart – to keep pushing for the winners for, in most situations, there will be a return. And you have to have the legs – for the grind that invariably comes with the red dirt.
On Tuesday, in a cauldron in Paris called the Philippe-Chatrier, Alexander Zverev’s legs gave way. A hamstring pull on his left leg signed for most of his 110-minute encounter against seventh seed Dominic Thiem. There was an option to throw in the towel and save himself the risk of aggravating the injury on the troublesome leg that refused to carry him to where his arms could freely thump the ball back over the net. It’s always an option. But Zverev recognised the occasion, and he had the heart to stay on. Even if it meant Thiem would go on to win comfortably, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1.
“I thought about it, I definitely thought about it,” he said after the match. “But I didn't want to pull out for the first time in my career in a Grand Slam quarter-final. I knew I was not going to win the match. There was no way for me 'cause I could barely move. I couldn't serve, I couldn't really do anything. But I still wanted to finish the match.... End on a loss, not on a retirement.”
For long, the 21-year-old has been pegged as a future champion, and ever since he has been, he has alarmingly underachieved when it matters the most: at the Grand Slams. Till date, the World No 3 has appeared in 15 majors. But it was only at this year’s competition at Roland Garros that he made it as far as the last eight.
In Thiem, Zverev had a familiar foe – they were meeting for the seventh time, with Thiem at a 4-2 win-loss edge. The last time they met was in the final of the Madrid Masters last month where Zverev marched onto a straight-sets win over the Austrian. It was the highest point in the clay season the German would reach, also winning the ATP 250 event in Munich and losing to Rafael Nadal in the final of the Rome Masters.
But in the second round of his campaign at the French Open, Zverev began to face the pressure from opponents. Dusan Lajovic stretched the German to five sets in that round, followed by another five-setter against Damir Dzumhur, and then another epic against fellow NextGen competitor Karen Khachanov. In all, Zverev had played 11 hours and 56 minutes of tennis before he got on court against Thiem. And the Austrian took full advantage of the mileage his opponent had clocked.
“He's one of the fittest guys on tour, and even for him it's maybe even a little bit too tough to play three five-setters in the first rounds of a Slam,” Thiem said. “So I expected somehow that he's a little bit tired, but still I'm happy how I finished the game. I let him run. I was doing what I had to do, and so I'm satisfied.”
The quarter-final encounter wasn’t just about Zverev losing, however. Thiem, a strong clay-courter himself (he even beat Nadal in the quarter-finals at Madrid), was in fine form on the day. Through his complex of industry and creativity – his shots dictated terms against his taller opponent who had so far been belting baseliners all through the clay court season – the 24-year-old demonstrated the improvements he’s brought to his game in the last year.
“I'm a better player in general, for sure,” Thiem said. “There was another year of work where I improved and developed my game…. I always knew how to play on clay, but I think that now I'm just making less stupid mistakes. Maybe I'm even a little bit more aggressive, and that's a good combination.”
In particularly, Thiem’s one-hand backhand slices (though a relatively defensive shot) had been bothering Zverev. The shot would stay low after the bounce forcing the 6-foot-6 German to flex his hamstring and bend low for a return. It took a toll on the youngster whose movement had been weary despite the many moments where he’d play those typical lengthy exchanges on clay.
By the time he was down in the second set though, the trainer was called to tape up Zverev’s left leg and confirm what most in the Philippe-Chatrier already knew. The pain though, had started much earlier.
“First time I felt a pull was in the fourth game of the first set when we had, you know, a few great points, you know, a lot of physical points," Zverev said. "I remember I slid one time, and then I felt, like, a muscle pull. I thought, well, okay. I played a lot. I thought maybe it's just, like, soreness or something that would just go away. I didn't think about it too much. And then, you know, each game and each slide, I was getting worse and worse. Middle of the second set, the pain was too much.”
Still, he hung on, playing a few audacious shots on the way. With Thiem serving at 1-0 and 40-15, Zverev was forced to lob weakly, but he returned the Austrian’s smash with a smash of his own to win the point. He’d do the same while serving at 30-30, 1-5 down. This time Thiem would get a racquet on it, only to hit it straight into the ground.
Even when he was playing on one good leg, Zverev showed glimpses of why he is the far-away leader of the younger generation. It is a position that has sometimes overwhelmed it, particularly at the majors. With the clamour of the NextGen growing towards the end of 2017, Zverev had suffered a shocking loss to Borna Coric, another player from that young emerging group, in the second round of the US Open. Again at the Australian Open, the pressure to prove seemed to get the better of him against fellow NextGenner Hyeon Chung, when he blew off a 2-1 lead to lose in five sets in the third round.
Roger Federer, whose young career trajectory was very much like Zverev’s, met up with the youngster in the locker room for a few words of encouragement.
“I just thought some nice words would maybe cheer him up, get him over the loss a few more hours earlier than it normally would,” Federer had said.
“It’s supposed to hurt. I’m sure it did. He looked crushed when I saw him. I gave him a tap on the shoulder and said, c’mon, it’s not too bad. It could be worse. I said,’ be patient about it. Don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure. Learn from these mistakes. Whatever happened, happened’."
Zverev bounced back from that Australian Open defeat to reach the final and is currently leading the Race to London with 3135 points – Federer a close second at 3110. He made the final of the Miami Masters and then put together a string of 13 successive wins on clay, including titles at Munich Open, Madrid Masters and pushed clay king Rafael Nadal to the limit at the Rome Masters. Rather than withdrawing into his shell at the first signs of trouble, Zverev has relied on his big shots to blast his way out again. The German has diligently also been working on his net game, and in Madrid where the high altitude helped his serve get an extra kick, he routinely followed it up with dashes to the net.
At Roland Garros on Tuesday, Zverev lost out in his best-ever finish at a Grand Slam. There’s no shame in losing to Thiem, a formidable opponent on the red dirt. And though he didn’t have the legs to keep up in the contest, he refused to walk out on it. He had the heart for a fight.
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Updated Date: Jun 07, 2018 12:50:45 IST