US Open Series

Youth has its day, as Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas set Washington SF showdown

Alexander Zverev sets up a Washington Open semi-final clash against Stefanos Tsitsipas

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Alexander Zverev Photo: Marianne Bevis

The rains continued to blight the 50th anniversary of the Citi Open 500 tournament in Washington, and took their toll on Andy Murray even before he hit a ball in his quarter-final against teenager Alex de Minaur.

Having battled to a three-hour, three-set, 3am finish on Thursday/Friday, it proved too much for Murray in his first hard-court tournament in almost a year and a half. With just three matches and one win to his name in the 13 months leading into Washington, as he worked his way back from hip surgery, the Briton was physically and mentally exhausted. He withdrew from Washington and the Toronto Masters to focus on recovery.

As it happens, it was a prescient, wise move: the evening quarter-finals were eventually postponed to Saturday, forcing the winner to play his semi on the same day.

Indeed, both day matches were interrupted by rain, though fortunately, the tennis rose above the difficult circumstances.

The first match featured the rangy teenager Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has, in recent months, begun to fulfil the many expectations loaded onto his tall frame.

He was the No1 junior when he turned pro in 2016, and last year won his first Challenger title and broke the top 100. This year, he has gone from strength to strength, starting with the quarters in Doha, and impressing at the Barcelona 500, where he beat four top-10 seeds to reach the final without dropping a set, including Dominic Thiem.

His first Major fourth-round run at Wimbledon brought him to the attention of a whole new set of tennis fans with his expressive, attacking game and one-handed backhand. By the time he arrived at Washington, he commanded the No10 seeding and a career-high 32, but in No3 seed David Goffin, he faced a classy opponent.

Tsitsipas had beaten the Belgian in Antwerp last year, but it was a long, tough battle: 2-6, 7-6, 7-6. This rematch would show just how far the young Greek had come in less than a year.

The tall teenager stepped in to attack at every opportunity, and a forehand winner got an early break, 3-1. He then flew to the net for a tricky backhand volley winner, and showed his mettle when Goffin finally found some rhythm in seventh game. Tsitsipas saved two break points for 5-2, and after a brief rain break, served out the set, 6-3.

The Greek is certainly not only attack and power, and he threw in a fine lob winner at the start of the second set, and Goffin hit his 15th error of the match to concede the break.

Goffin’s level improved, though, and he made a couple of good love holds to stay in touch. Nerves gripped Tsitsipas as he stepped up to serve out the match—a double fault to bring up his only break point of the set—but then produced two winning serves, and advanced to the semis as one more Goffin forehand went wide, 6-4.

As well as setting a new ranking high—the Greek will begin the Toronto Masters inside the top 30—Tsitsipas also set a highly-anticipated semi-final showdown: It will be the first meeting between two #NextGen stars in what could be a long and exciting rivalry.

The Greek sits right behind Alexander Zverev in the Race to Milan, though the older Zverev has 18 months of experience, victories—and muscle—over Tsitsipas. The German picked up his first title, age 19, in St Petersburg at, it so happens, at the same ranking as Tsitsipas will become on Monday: 28.

Zverev’s upward trajectory was then impressively steep: Seven more titles, three of them at Masters level, and he was now top seed and defending champion in Washington. To hold on to his No3 ranking, he needed to reach the final—and then do the same as defending champion in Toronto, but first things first.

The 21-year-old German would be severely tested by the 2015 champion, No7 seed Kei Nishikori, who was playing some of his best tennis since returning from first hip and then wrist injury.

The two men contested the semis in Washington last year, but Nishikori won their three-set semi in Monte Carlo this spring. So not surprisingly, for two former champions created a high-quality and compelling match, even with rain disruption.

Nishikori drew first blood in a rare wayward service game from Zverev, a break to love for 4-2. The quick, early strikes and precision placement by Nishikori kept Zverev at bay on his own serve—until the ninth game. There, he faced 15-40, but served his way out of trouble for the set, 6-3.

Zverev had done little wrong: He served at 88 percent, dropped not a point on his second serve, but all four of the points he did drop on serve happened to come in a glut, in that one game.

No matter: the impressive tennis of Zverev is matched by extraordinary maturity and confidence, and his extensive doubles play with the brother he beat in the third round, Mischa, ensures that he has more strings to his bow.

Zverev upped his focus and attack, but Nishikori fended off four break points in the second game. However, some big-time cross-court forehands by the German finally broke through in the fourth game, 3-1, and Zverev asserted his dominance on serve, 4-1. Mixing things up, he made a drop-shot winner on his way to another break, and served out the set to love, 6-1.

By the time the two men stopped for long rain delay, Zverev was already a break to the good, helped not a little by a series of weary errors from Nishikori, and he returned to hold and then break again, 5-2. Nishikori roused himself for one break back, but it was not enough: Zverev served out the win to love, 6-4.

And so the face-off of #NextGen talent was set, with Zverev having to come back just 18 hours later—weather permitting. And as if that was not enough, he is afterwards scheduled to play both his quarter- and semi-final doubles matches.

Clearly the fitness programme—carefully structured over several years by Murray’s former training coach, Jez Green—is bearing fruit. Zverev now leads the tour with 39 match-wins this season (39-11). But then he also has youth on his side—as does Washington. Should Andrey Rublev beat Denis Kudla in the last quarter-final, all four semi-finalists will be in the top eight of the #NextGen Race to Milan. Zverev, at 21, will be the oldest.

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