Healthy and hungry, Alexander Zverev denies Frances Tiafoe a fifth set, then slams the door shut

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In the wake of what has happened to him the last two years at Roland Garros, Alexander Zverev can well relate to these words spoken in Paris more than 100 years ago: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly . . .”

This is an excerpt from President Theodore Roosevelt’s infamous “Man in the Arena” speech, delivered at the Sorbonne in 1910.

RISING STAR: VENUS WILLIAMS PICTURED ALONGSIDE COMPATRIOT ALYCIA PARKS PRIOR TO BIRMINGHAM CLASSIC

RISING STAR: VENUS WILLIAMS PICTURED ALONGSIDE COMPATRIOT ALYCIA PARKS PRIOR TO BIRMINGHAM CLASSIC

Over the course of three hours and 42 minutes that stretched from Saturday night into Sunday morning, Zverev eloquently personified Roosevelt’s protagonist. Recall how 12 months ago, in the semifinals of Roland Garros versus Rafael Nadal, he had left the court in a wheelchair, the result of a horrific ankle injury that took Zverev out of competition for the balance of ‘22. Tonight, he left on his feet, winner over 12th-seeded Frances Tiafoe, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 6-1, 7-6 (5).

Zverev is only nine months older than Tiafoe. But through the first 1.8 sets of this match, Tiafoe appeared contemporary, the 22nd-seeded Zverev seemingly yesterday’s news. During the same period when Top 10 mainstay Zverev was rehabilitating himself, Tiafoe had progressed considerably, his ranking rising from 27 last June to its current spot at 12.

Whether in a long rally, or with a slice, drop shot, volley, or dazzling shot on the run, Tiafoe dictated far more of the play throughout the first set and much of the second. Never mind that Tiafoe’s head-to-head record with Zverev prior to this match was 1-6. As Tiafoe has shown frequently over this period of ascent, that was then, this is now.

“I played well,” said Tiafoe. “I mean, for the majority of the match I felt like I was in control. I felt like I was controlling the rally for the most part. I mean, I thought I was a better player for a lot of times.”

A short, Federer-like slice at 3-all, 30-40 extracted a Zverev backhand error. Two games later, Zverev served at 3-5, 30-40 and yielded an old nemesis: a double-fault. This was the first time versus Zverev that Tiafoe had ever won the opening set.

But as the second set wore on, Zverev began to issue reminders that our familiarity with him is also heavily due to his longstanding proficiency. This is one experienced competitor, an Olympic gold medalist and one-time Grand Slam finalist who last year after Roland Garros reached a career-high ranking of No. 2 in the world

I mean, for the majority of the match I felt like I was in control. I felt like I was controlling the rally for the most part. I mean, I thought I was a better player for a lot of times.
Frances Tiafoe

Zverev turned the match around with a buttoned-up effort in the second set tiebreaker, ending it with one of his go-to shots, a crosscourt forehand winner. And though Tiafoe broke to start the third, from there the American was disconsolate, dropping the next six games.

Tiafoe resurfaced magnificently in the fourth set. At 2-2, he fought his way back from 15-40, a comeback highlighted by well-placed wide serves in both the deuce and the ad court. At 3-4, he broke Zverev, aided by two double-faults.

Then came a sequence that will cause Tiafoe nightmares. Serving at 5-3, 30-love, he misfired badly on three straight groundstrokes and eventually surrendered his serve. In the next game, Zverev served at 4-5, love-30—and Tiafoe netted two straight passing shots, including a fairly open one at 15-30. Two games later, Zverev served at 5-6. Tiafoe again captured the first two points, but was unable to close out the set and soon Zverev had held.

Call the tiebreaker a mini-gem. Both hit out powerfully and covered all corners. Tiafoe served at 4-3, opened up the court nicely with a drop shot, but missed the subsequent volley. At 5-all, Zverev pounded an excellent serve down the T that elicited a long return. On match point, a Tiafoe crosscourt forehand went wide.

 

“I mean, I really felt like I was the better player tonight,” said Tiafoe. “I let it go. So that’s the name of the game. Some loose points, some up and downs. He kind of stayed with it.”

Come Monday, Zverev will enter the arena once again and play a man who has also battled through his share of ups and downs, 28th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov. Surprisingly, as long as these two have been on the tour, they’ve only played one another four times. Zverev has won three, including their only match on clay, a 6-1, 6-4 victory in Rome seven years ago.

For the sixth straight year, Alexander Zverev is in the round of 16 at Roland Garros. Given his recent physical struggles, this one might well be the sweetest of them all.

“I know what happened last year”, said Zverev “It was emotional for me to step on that court for the first time when I played Molcan, I’m not going to lie. But now I’m here to play some of the best players in the world, and today was definitely the case in that. I’m happy with the win and happy to be through.”

As Roosevelt said that day in Paris, “because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.” Several years prior to making that speech, Roosevelt had the first tennis court installed at the White House.

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