When Alexander Zverev ended the first set with a wild forehand and a loud rant directed at his box, it looked like Grand Slam pressure was getting to him again. But over the next couple of hours, the German youngster, long tagged as the leader of NextGen, calmed down, weathered the challenge of playing the eccentric Fabio Fognini and eventually emerged a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 (5) winner.
It wasn’t a match that tested Zverev’s talent as much as it did his temperament. The German, however, came through in two hours and 55 minutes of testy, tense, but entertaining encounter to take him to his second successive French Open quarter-final.
Fognini had thrown the gauntlet early in the clay season, when he defeated Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters and went on to win the title — his first ATP 1000 crown. The Italian, only 5’10, is a tall challenge on the surface. He has the legs to run all day, but prefers to take charge, control the pace and tempo of the rally and can be downright brazen while coming to the net. He’s tennis’ mad genius.
It is usually up to his opponents to make him lean more towards mad than genius.
As he had at the 2018 edition of Roland Garros, Zverev has been living dangerously. A last-minute entry at Geneva Open had reaped him the title, but the World No 5 has still looked unconvincing on the Parisian clay. He was stretched to five sets by John Millman in the very first round and by Dusan Lajovic in the third round. He’s picked up a few lessons on survival en route, and those served him well against the Italian.
Unlike the slugfests on clay, Monday’s fourth-round clash between Fognini and Zverev was a territorial battle on the terre battue. The players wrestled for court advantage, to get the first strike in. Fognini won 26 of 36 net points while Zverev won 28 of 46.
Zverev, who doesn’t have his star coach Ivan Lendl in his player box at the French Open, has been criticised during the tournament by experts like John McEnroe and Boris Becker for his court positioning: he’s taken a passive stand too far behind the baseline. And Fognini tried to exploit it, successfully at first, by hitting some deftly angled drop shots.
The Italian, who saved a triple break point in the very first game, attacked with aplomb in the opening set. Across the net, Zverev, who won only two points on his second serve in the set, was getting jittery. In the eighth game, he served two double faults to hand Fognini a crucial break for 5-3. Fognini, 10 years Zverev’s senior, served out the set at love. The lanky German was left chewing on his gold chains and shouting at his player box in German.
The all-important turnaround came in the fifth game of the second set. With Fognini trying to press the advantage again, Zverev came up with a stunning forehand pass on the run to save a break point. The German outlasted Fognini in the game that went on for eight deuces and more than 10 minutes. That tussle won, he looked better prepared for the battle ahead. Zverev won four games in a row after that and pushed into an early (3-1) lead in the third.
It was Fognini’s turn to lose his cool. He smashed his racquet on the red clay, got warned for it. The Italian, who has his right calf taped, had started to waver. His sharp, quick forehand jabs had lost direction. Zverev had started anticipating, and picking up, some of his drop shots and moving him corner to corner.
The fourth set was a more even battle. The Italian continued to serve up a mix of the ethereal and the pedestrian. And though Zverev struggled to find any rhythm, wearing a scowl for most of the match, he had cut down on his errors and served more efficiently. He pushed Fognini just enough to get him to crack. In the tie-break too, Fognini handed Zverev a 4-2 advantage with a double fault and then surrendered the match by belting a forehand long, his 53rd unforced error of the match.
Zverev let out a celebratory roar to mark his passage into the final eight.
“I didn't start well and he did. He played very aggressive, hitting the ball very hard, which made it difficult,” said Zverev. “But then after first set, I played three very good sets, very solid from my part. And I'm happy to be in the quarter-finals.”
It is the first time this year that the 6’6 German has beaten a top-20 player, and the first time ever that he has beaten a top-20 player in a Grand Slam. Next up for him, World No 1 Novak Djokovic.
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Updated Date: Jun 04, 2019 10:22:14 IST