A Frances Tiafoe backhand return sailed out, sealing the match in favour of Alexander Zverev. There were no wild celebrations, Zverev walked towards the net, eyes firmly placed on his players' box, his right hand tapping his chest. Another Grand Slam, another five-set match for the German youngster. He showed some heart, yet again, as he edged past Tiafoe 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 2-6, 6-2 in the second round of the US Open under the searing sun on Thursday.
"I've been here before, it's usually what I do in the first few rounds of majors—I play five sets," said Zverev, happy to finish on the winning side after the three-hour contest. But you couldn't miss the hint of irony in the statement.
The 21-year-old, for long touted as a future Grand Slam champion, has played and won five five-setters in 2019. While it's a credit to Zverev that he has found a way to win these long-drawn battles, there has been a disturbing pattern he has fallen in. During this Grand Slam season, before Thursday, in each of the four five-setters that he played – one at Australian Open, two at the French Open, and one in the US Open first round—he had led his opponent by two sets to love. Bafflingly, he lost pace and some of the conviction, to let them all back in the match before holding strong in the decider.
Zverev had also been a set up against Jiri Vesely in the first round at Wimbledon as well before going down in four sets.
"One or two things don't go my way, and everything kind of a little bit falls apart," the German had said after that disappointing first-round loss that extended his agony at the majors. "It was kind of a typical Grand Slam match for me."
As was the one against fellow 21-year-old Tiafoe on Thursday. Zverev, serving well and hitting confidently from the baseline, was as smoothly off the block as a German car. He won the first 10 points of the match, fired five aces, 14 winners and cashed on to the only break point opportunity of the set to cruise to a 6-3 lead. When the golden-haired, blinged-up Zverev plays like that, tennis' future looks bright and breezy.
But with Zverev, you know the dark clouds are lurking nearby.
Rather than stepping up and pressing his opponent into a corner, Zverev took his foot off the baseline and retreated into the court, happy to play safe and defensive tennis. Even though Tiafoe hasn't quite stacked up the impressive results his fellow Next Genners have managed on the tour, he is quite a talent. Especially when he is allowed to attack.
The American started surging into the forecourt regularly, keeping the points short and crisp with some impressive volleying. Through the match, Tiafoe came to the net a total of 53 times and won 41 of those points. Tiafoe saved a breakpoint at 2-2 in the second set after drawing Zverev to the net and finishing off with a mid-court backhand pass. That was the only break point chance the German would have in the set, in which he conceded seven. The American broke Zverev's serve in the very next game, after the German served a double fault to trail 2-4.
It was an up-and-down affair, with both players struggling to seize momentum. While the German broke Tiafoe's serve twice in the third set to pocket it 6-2, Tiafoe returned the favour in the fourth to win it with the exact same margin. Like he had the second set, Zverev lost the fourth with a misfired forehand return.
After his shocking defeat at Wimbledon, Zverev had said that his, "confidence is below zero right now." He has had a difficult year by his standards: coming into the Open he had a win-loss record of 30-17 and only one, an ATP 250 Geneva Open, tour title to show. The youngster has been embroiled in an off-court battle with his former agent. That was one of the reasons the legendary Ivan Lendl stepped down as his coach in July.
That wasn't the year he would have anticipated, having finished off last season by winning the ATP World Tour Finals – a tournament where only the best eight players of the season compete. The US Open, then, is Zverev's final shot at making a mark in the majors.
He had survived a five-set battle against World No 41 Radu Albot in the first round and the German was ready for the fight once again in the decider against Tiafoe. A ripping backhand down the line to break Tiafoe for 2-0 amply showcased the intent. The German, who didn't face a single breakpoint in the fifth set either, ran away with the lead.
"Frances gave me an unbelievable fight and it took everything out of me," said Zverev of his opponent who had taken a medical-timeout at 5-2 in the decider for a shoulder niggle. "I had to go five sets; in the second and fourth sets he was much better than me. I'm just happy to get the win somehow."
The final stats summed Zverev's inconsistencies: 22 aces to 11 double faults and 63 winners to 53 unforced errors. The German has been able to scramble out of the hole he keeps digging for himself. But he's expending too much physical and emotional energy in doing that.
Updated Date: Aug 30, 2019 10:30:13 IST