Yesterday I wrote about Alexander Zverev’s realization that the greatness is earned as isn’t some title bestowed on the gifted simply because they are gifted. Turns out he took that realization into today’s match with Karen Khachanov. Whatever is going on with Zverev at the grand slam level, the most important takeaway is that he’s finding ways to grind out the win. This was his third straight five set match, and his third straight win from two sets to one down. If he doesn’t win this grand slam, we know it will not be for lack of fighting spirit.
I have read a few articles that talk about Zverev almost losing matches he should win. That may have been true for Lajovic and Dzumhur, but I doubt Khachanov ranks as a walking win for any rising star. The young Russian is a rising star himself. I wrote about him earlier in the year and said he could own the courts one day. He has that Safarian air about him and not because they are from the same country. This is a player who knows he is good enough to beat anyone, if he is playing well, and doesn’t seem intimidated by anyone.
After being broken early on, and getting the break right back, Khachanov settled right into the match, throwing lightning bolts all over the court. The ball striking in this match was crisp from both ends with each impact sound going off like a firecracker. Yet Khachanov was the more assertive of the two. He was the one hugging the baseline and taking control of the court. Ultimately, hugging the baseline and dictating the play from a forecourt position, won Karen Khachanov the first set. In that moment, I realized why Zverev’s matches have been going the distance, and indeed why he has been losing so early in grand slam matches. That reason is summed up in this advise to Zverev from none other than Roger Federer. This was at the Laver Cup, last year.
Zverev’s tendency to play defensively from the baseline – his propensity to give up ground and roll his shots in – is a tactical flaw in his game. It allows his opponent gradually take control of the rally and opens up the angles that sends him scampering from side to side along the baseline. It is also a significant waste of his unquestioned power. In essence, with his ball-striking abilities and easy power, he should be the one controlling most of the rallies in his matches. Federer most likely saw this in Zverev’s match against Shapovalov, last year, and offered his advice. Zverev hasn’t accepted it fully.
This much is clear. When he does step forward and hug the baseline, the results are mostly positive. The pace and weight of his shots do more damage from a forecourt position and his uncanny ability to utilize the angles of the court comes into play much more. It surmises the big man’s tennis I spoke of in my last article on Zverev. It has everything to do with his court positioning. To stress how important this minute detail is for Zverev, every set he played defensively against Khachanov, he lost. Every set he played offensively, he won. The same can be said of his matches against Lajovic and Dzumhur. Fortunately for him, he’s been making the adjustments in three out of the five sets – in time to grind out the victory. In time to survive.
Up next is perhaps Alexander Zverev’s stiffest test yet. Dominic Thiem has long been touted as Nadal’s heir apparent and for good reason. The clay court remains his productive surface and by extension, Roland Garros. This is his third consecutive trip to the quarterfinals in this tournament. I do not think Zverev can afford to experiment with hanging deep in the baseline this time. If he wants to make his first grand slam semifinal, he’ll have to do more than try to survive Thiem. He’ll have to thrive against Thiem. That will not be easy. If this match proves to be as good as it looks on paper, tennis will certainly thrive from it.