French Open 2018: Alexander Zverev digs deep again against valiant Khachanov to reach first Major QF
Alexander Zverev beats Karen Khachanov in five sets to reach the quarter-finals of the French Open in Paris
It is a tradition when it comes to tournament notes in tennis that the highest seeds begin the run-down, and the rest follow in descending order.
At Roland Garros this year, that tradition highlights just what a transformational season this has been. There, on the first page, is the 21-year-old No2 seed, Alexander Zverev; turn to the last page of the schedule’s four fourth-round matches, and there is 12-time Major champion, Novak Djokovic, seeded at 20.
It is, of course, a story of two halves. The first features the highest-profile and most successful of the generation that is expected to spearhead men’s tennis through the 2020s; the second highlights just how precarious it can be at the very top of this demanding sport—how one accident, one injury, can overturn the old order in a matter of months.
But to the first.
Zverev arrived in Paris not just as No3 in the world but leading the Race to London: Yes, he has won more points this season than either Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer.
As No2 seed here, it marks the first time since 2005 that one of the ‘big four’ has not been seeded in the top two spots.
Zverev is also the only active player apart from the ‘big four’ to win more than two Masters: He won his third in Madrid last month.
Add into the equation that he has piled up more wins this year than anyone else—33-8—and that he won back-to-back titles in Munich and Madrid, made the finals in Miami and Rome, and the semis in Monte-Carlo and Acapulco, and he has set himself up as one of the form players of the year. And all as he turned from 20 to 21.
Indeed, as he opened play on middle Sunday, he was the youngest remaining man in the draw, and as luck would have it, would play the next youngest man in the draw, the unseeded but also much-talked-of Karen Khachanov. The winner would become the youngest Roland Garros quarter-finalist since 2009.
Yet for all Zverev’s youth, and that his 6ft 6in slender frame is only now reaching its maturity—just ask physical trainer Jez Green, who stressed to the young German that it would take up to five years from turning pro to reach the level of, for example, his former charge Andy Murray—it is perhaps surprising that he has attracted so much attention for not yet going deep in a Major.
He had, by and large, risen about the ‘criticism’, for this assured young man has been able to draw not only on his own resources but on the support of a close-knit team: A coaching father, a playing elder brother, that renowned trainer, plus not a little mentoring along the way from a man who has been there and done it, Federer.
More than two years back, in Rotterdam, the then teenager admitted that the Swiss had been “giving me tips on tournaments. He always takes me to practice…He’s been a big help, telling me what to do in the important moments.”
And when Zverev again failed to reach the quarters of a Major in Australia, it was Federer who reassured him with:
“I just think it’s important to sometimes take a step back and actually see the good things you’ve done, give yourself time.”
Worth remembering too that Federer was almost 20 when he made his first Major quarter, and almost 22 before he won Wimbledon.
The young German reached the fourth round at Wimbledon last year, and had now done the same at Roland Garros for the first time. Not only that, he twice battled back from two sets to one down, fending off a match point against No26 seed Damir Dzumhur to score his first top-50 win at a Major.
In Khachanov, he played another big, youthful powerhouse of a man who rose almost as fast as Zverev, won his first title in 2016, broke the top 50 18 months ago—and made the fourth round here in Paris last June. Zverev, though, had won their only previous match, and also had all the clay form coming into this match.
Khachanov reached the third round in Monte-Carlo but fell at the first hurdle in Madrid and Rome. However, here, he had lost only one set in three matches, and beat No15 seed Lucas Pouille in swift order. He surely, then, had more gas in the tank than Zverev.
After an exchange of breaks at the start of the first set, they both pressed hard for the break at the end of the set. Khachanov saved two break points and then converted the his third to take it, 6-4.
The second set ground through tough, long games, but now it was Zverev who seemed to dominate. He held to love after securing a break in seventh game, but in a battle of wills as much as physical control, Zverev resisted five deuces and four break points, only to be broken on the fifth: 5-5. Two love holds and it was a tie-break, and a few minutes later, Zverev had belatedly levelled the match, 7-6(4).
Extraordinarily, the battle raged on, now Khachanov powering through the court and wearing down his opponent with drop-shot winners, 6-2, then it was Zverev’s turn. The German broke for 4-2, despite cutting an exhausted figure, and stubbornly resisted two break points as he served for the set, 6-3.
They had 124 points each.
Zverev, finding the energy to pump his fist at every won point, roared himself to break in the first game of the decider as the match crossed the three-hour mark. No wonder, in this his 42nd match of the season and his third five-setter of the week, he called for treatment to his feet: Blisters, the tennis player’s curse. But for all Khachanov’s battling, he could not break the German—in tennis or in spirit. A superb backhand set up match point, and one last error from the Russian sealed it, 6-3.
It clearly meant the world: Zverev patted his heart, sank to his knees with his arms aloft, and embraced his opponent. He even made light of his growing reputation for five-setters:
“I’m young so I might as well stay on court and practise a little bit… entertain you guys!”
But he was quick to praise and thank the team behind this increasingly impressive player:
“Jez Green is the only one who left [my box] for some reason… but all the hours we spent in the gym paid off now. I’m unbelievably happy to have the team I have, with Jez, and my brother who does all the work with me.”
He will need every bit of their help now, too, for things get no easier in what is a bottom-heavy quarter. Next up is another very fine clay-court player in Dominic Thiem.
The No7 seed is second only to Zverev for matches won this year, and had the additional clay kudos of having halted Nadal’s unbeaten run since Roland Garros last year. He also reached the semis here last year, and arrived with clay titles from Buenos Aires and Lyon and a final finish in Madrid.
The 24-year-old Austrian had lost to No19 seed Kei Nishikori in both their previous matches, but not this time, not in this form. He thumped 41 winners compared with 21 from Nishikori and faced only one break-point, the one that gave up the third set. No problem: He advanced to a highly-anticipated meeting with Zverev, 6-2, 6-0, 5-7, 6-4.
In this budding rivalry, Thiem leads Zverev, 4-2, but the German has won two of their last three, including their recent meet in Madrid. Thiem may have beaten Nadal there, but Zverev beat the Austrian to lift the title.
But before the quarter-finals, there was the matter of the remaining pair of matches in the bottom quarter, and that unusual ranking of former champion Djokovic.