French Open 2019: Alexander Zverev's nervous five-set win over Dusan Lajovic underlines his constant tussle with self

It’s already the second five-setter of three matches for NextGen leader and fifth seed Alexander Zverev. As starts go, it’s not the most promising for the 22-year-old, who struggled against Australia’s John Millman in Round 1 before coming into Round 3.

 French Open 2019: Alexander Zverevs nervous five-set win over Dusan Lajovic underlines his constant tussle with self

Alexander Zverev was stretched to five sets after he won the opening two sets. AFP

It’s not that clay is a bad surface for Alexander Zverev — quite the contrary. Of the 17 ATP Tour Level finals Zverev has made over his career so far, seven have been on clay — including his most recently played tournament, the Geneva Open, where he saved two match points in the final to win the title.

In fact, going into Saturday’s match against Dusan Lajovic, two sets in you would have believed Zverev would wrap this up quickly. Although he had a bit of a shaky start, down 2-4 in the first, the German kept up quite the athletic brand of tennis regardless.

Continuing to come up to the net and dance around the court with the grace of Mikhail Baryshnikov, Zverev found his stride and unleashed volleys so fluid you might think they were part of an artistic display. For his part, Lajovic was a tough opponent. Young, athletic and in some form of his own, the Serbian has been somewhat of a troublesome opponent for Zverev; the last time the pair faced off was at the French Open last year, in the Round of 64 rather than 32. That match, too, went to five sets.

Lajovic was coming off a number of good matches. The 30th seed here, he was a finalist at Monte Carlo last month, losing the title to Italy’s Fabio Fognini — incidentally, Zverev's next opponent.

After managing to pull back the first set for a 4-4 level, Zverev took the opening set, only to breeze through the second at 6-2. As Lajovic upped his level — athletic, moving and placing his shots well — the Serb had Zverev flummoxed, and looking nervous, which is perhaps what did him in. Zverev’s focus was left seriously wanting as the match progressed, and as a result, he proceeded to lose the third set to an in-control Lajovic, 4-6.

Zverev is somewhat notorious for playing longer matches on the terre battue; five of the German’s nine wins at Roland Garros have come in five sets. He has never progressed the quarter-finals at a Grand Slam before, and his best result at a Major was indeed at the French Open, where he lost to an in-form Dominic Thiem.

Last year, he came up against three five-setters back-to-back; one of them, incidentally, against Lajovic.

Nerves have been Zverev’s undoing before. For all his experience, his immense skill and his intense match-winning ability, Zverev is still young, and no matter how good, or how experienced you are at your job, losing focus is something that can happen to anyone.

Zverev lost his focus completely, and the fact that he ended that match with a staggering 55 unforced errors should be some indication of that fact. Even more crucially, he double-faulted at very inopportune moments, with poor shots getting the better of his mind.

Zverev has already spoken of his struggles with pressure, and the Grand Slam stage brings its own pressure, incomparable to any other event. For someone who has had as much success as Zverev, even at the Masters level, Majors somehow daunt him. It is as if for him, the idea of a Grand Slam is bigger than the matches, the opponents, or the good tennis he is playing. He has a great serve, moves really well, and is decidedly injury free. As the youngest player in the top 10, Zverev also has age on his side.

But in the end, it is perhaps his age that has been his undoing. For all the others, experience has been quite the teacher in terms of nerves, and for the top players — so many of whom Zverev has defeated before — Grand Slams are old hat.

To that end, perhaps Zverev’s hiring of Ivan Lendl late last year makes sense: Lendl, like Zverev, was an aggressive baseliner, but one thing he was particularly known for was his mental strength on the court. It is that mental strength that Zverev needs to learn, more than shots and tips on gameplay.

For Zverev, it is not the pressure of the opponent. He has defeated the best of the best already; this time, however, his biggest competitor will be himself.

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Updated Date: Jun 02, 2019 11:44:21 IST