Australian Open: More relaxed approach paying off for Zverev

Hannah Wilks:

Alexander Zverev has long been touted as a future Grand Slam champion, but his major breakthrough has taken longer than expected.

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Zverev has enjoyed good success at regular ATP events, winning multiple Masters 1000 titles, claiming the Nitto ATP Finals title at the end of 2018, and rising to a career-high No. 3 in the world, but the German had struggled to reproduce that form at the Grand Slams. He made just two quarter finals in his first 18 majors, both at Roland Garros in 2018 and 2019.

However, at the 19th attempt, Zverev has finally made a Grand Slam semi-final, and he’s done it in style, dropping just one set en route the last four. When asked about his previous major struggles, Zverev admitted that he couldn’t deal with the Grand Slam stage, as he had piled too much pressure on himself, and caved under the weight of expectation. He’s adopted a more relaxed approach to the 2020 Australian Open, and that has paid off over the last fortnight.

“I was paying too much attention to them”, replied Zverev when asked about his Grand Slam struggles. “I was just playing better tennis at the other tournaments… The Grand Slams maybe meant too much for me”.

“I was doing things, in a way, too professional. I was not talking to anybody. I wasn’t going out with friends. I wasn’t having dinner. I was almost too focused.”

“This year I actually came into the Australian Open with absolutely no expectations because I was playing horrible. At the ATP Cup I was playing bad, and the weeks before”.

Following a disappointing 2019 campaign, and a poor start to the 2020 season at the ATP Cup, expectations were very low coming into the Australian Open.

Zverev had a frustrating time at the ATP Cup (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

While other young guns like Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas hugged all the attention, Zverev flew under the radar through the early phase of the tournament, beating Marco Cecchinato, Egor Gerasimov and Fernando Verdasco to reach the second week without dropping a set.

Against the in-form Andrey Rublev in the fourth round, the German produced another clinical performance, scoring a 6-4 6-4 6-4 victory to end Rublev’s 15-match winning streak, and reach his first major quarter final outside Roland Garros. If he wasn’t being taken as a serious contender before that, victory over Rublev certainly turned a lot more heads in his direction. He backed it up with another fine win over Stan Wawrinka, battling back from a set down to defeat the 2014 champion.

Zverev first broke into the top-ten as a 20-year-old in 2017, peaking at No. 3 in the world, while he cemented his position as one of the best players in the world in 2018, spending all of that season inside the top-five. After winning the Nitto ATP Finals in spectacular fashion, scoring back-to-back victories over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, the general consensus was that Zverev was ready to take the next big step in 2019- a key component of that big step being a significant run at the majors.

Zverev will face Thiem in the Australian Open semifinals (Photo by Corinne Dubreuil/ABACAPRESS.COM)

However, the young gun regressed. He wasn’t entirely poor- he maintained a top-ten presence all through the year- but he was well short of the form that had kept him inside the top five for all of 2018. The 22-year-old won just one title all season, at the ATP 250 meet in Geneva, and made two other finals in Acapulco and Shanghai.

A big part of the problem was his serve- he averaged 5.9 double faults per match last season, including a staggering 10.8 at the US Open, and the problem continued into the new season as he threw down 31 double faults across ATP Cup losses to Alex De Minaur, Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

He has overcome his serving woes in Melbourne, hitting 56 aces and just eleven double faults in his five matches. Only Novak Djokovic has a better ace count amongst the four Australian Open semi-finalists.

That shot will be huge on Friday night if he is to take down Dominic Thiem and move on to his maiden major final. The German understands the magnitude of the challenge, but he is also very confident, as he should be, given the run he’s had over the last 12 days.

“I did beat Stan just now, who is also a multiple Grand Slam champion, which gives me a little bit of confidence that I can do it,” Zverev said. “I hope I can still continue to play better in the semi-finals and hopefully maybe in the final. The people that I’m going to play are not getting worse.”

Zverev vs Thiem is live from Melbourne on Friday, 21 January from 7:30pm local time/ 8:30am GMT