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Wimbledon 2018: Why Alexander Zverev’s defeat to Ernests Gulbis does not fit his losing pattern at Majors

What is eating Alexander Zverev? The short, simple answer is of course that the Grand Slams are. Consider the results: Third round, the best result in Australian Open. Best result of last-64 at the US Open. A breakthrough quarter-final run at the French Open this year but that was a struggle, beating Dusan Lajovic in the fifth in the second round, Damir Dzumhur stretched to the decider in the third round, and needing the last two sets against Karen Khachanov in the fourth round. By the time the quarter-finals rolled along, Zverev had little resistance to offer Dominc Thiem, whom he had beaten just weeks ago for the Madrid Masters, his third Masters title.

These are the results of someone who's been top-5 for some time and has three Masters titles, which in the present era is second only to the Big Four. Seeded No 3 at Wimbledon this year, Zverev lost to Ernests Gulbis in the third round, former top-10 but qualifier in 2018, in five sets, having scraped through another full-length match against Taylor Fritz in the second round.

 Wimbledon 2018: Why Alexander Zverev’s defeat to Ernests Gulbis does not fit his losing pattern at Majors

Ernests Gulbis meets Alexander Zverev at the net after defeating him in the third round. AP

The longer answer is more complicated than that and something we can only speculate on. Zverev's early promise combined with his well-developed weapons on both wings had everyone predicting a dream run to a Grand Slam title. He has his big titles and big wins against top players, so what could really be stopping him from making that run?

For one, the Grand Slams are a different beast. Players, not as consistent as the top lot, enter with renewed lease of life simply because it is a Major and find a new wind to shine under the spotlight. Others like Zverev come in with pressure that is all too visible, just waiting to anoint him as the next big thing in men's tennis. Zverev's struggles don't seem to be in the technical department though he has some way to go on the faster courts. He still has a problem handling slices that zip low and skid at him, making playing on grass different from the surfaces he has multiple Masters on.

Pinning this Wimbledon loss to Gulbis on Zverev's traditional Slam problems could be tempting but has the potential to turn into misdirection. The first six days of Wimbledon have already seen a combustion of seeds, especially on the women's side.

On the men's side we've lost Nick Kyrgios, strong tournament favourite Marin Cilic, Roland Garros finalist Dominic Thiem, and Grigor Dimitrov. But grasscourt tennis is such that, unlike slower surfaces, it does not give room and freedom for players to keep the ball in play longer and wear down the opponent, something a higher-ranked, fitter, and more experienced player can accomplish.

Grass is going to favour any player who takes the chance, has an attacking mindset that doesn't waver in the slightest of dissent, thereby robbing the opponent of the time required to hit through the court to stay in the point for one more exchange. And this means not just handling the attack and a completely different trajectory of the ball but also moving on court well enough to adjust to the kind of offensive play that is possible only on grass. Sometimes patience is key. Thanks to the serve being all important, break points are hard to come by on grass compared to a slower surface and if they do, they are harder to convert.

Now how much patience does Zverev have, with his problems with low bounce, a quarter-final appearance that seems as far away as a fifth Slam win, and yet another five-setter before the second week. It is wearing so thin that at one point the linesperson gave him an audible obscenity warning and he had to learn the hard way from the chair umpire that linespersons are authorised to do that.

Here is what we must really focus on after Zverev's loss in the third round: his opponent Gulbis who earned the win by playing eye-catching grasscourt tennis. We know Gulbis can be temperamental and even on Saturday he showed that side of him that has kept his talents bottled up, only allowing an enticing drop or two to escape. Gulbis served for the third set at 5-3 but failed to close and Zverev did not allow him to win another game in that set. But Gulbis displayed the kind of tennis that grass makes possible, his finesse inclined game made for quicker courts. He sent Zverev scrambling to every inch of the court with his mix of drop shots, lobs, slice, side-spin and under-spin forehands. At times they didn't work out for him, his placement would be at Zverev's wheelhouse or he overcooked a shot but Gulbis hung in there long enough producing showtime tennis that Zverev had no answers for in the final two sets.

Gulbis moved better on this court than Zverev, all of it captured in a single point with Zverev serving at 3-2 on serve in the fourth, ominous at 30-30, when Gulbis made his opponent scramble from side to side, a sliced forehand or two thrown in for good measure, when both lost their footing.  Gulbis recovered to finish with a drop volley while Zverev was just dusting himself off the baseline after that 24-shot rally, giving the Latvian a break point. A Gulbis winner before this point had just about clipped the line and Zverev could never recover after these two match altering points.

Gulbis played through Wimbledon qualifying in Roehampton last week and now he is in the second week of Wimbledon, which is the third week of the tournament for him. For a year and a half, he's been more active in the Challenger circuit and the qualifiers of the ATP top-tier tournaments. He finished 2017 ranked 589. He is now number 138.

We keep finding out this Wimbledon what some inspiring all-court tennis can do when fearless tennis players seize the moment. Zverev, no doubt, has a Major problem on his hands. But this result had little to do with his head and more to do with Gulbis, who lives to slice and dice another day. You should see him theatrically tapping the ball to the ball kids on the other side after completing a service game. That’s him demonstrating “I am done, the ball is on your court."

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Updated Date: Jul 08, 2018 17:52:15 IST

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