With Roland Garros 2018 a few days old, attention has revolved around Serena’s catsuit, Marco Trungelliti’s navigation skills, and the revelation that tennis reporters are even coming from Yorkshire to see the tennis (as Bishop Brennan might say).
While they’re all tremendous stories for Twitter, I’d like to spend a few paragraphs discussing a potential breakout performance from Wednesday afternoon.
You’re probably expecting this writer to mention some 19-year-old prodigy that dispatched a big name or a late bloomer that finally earned a significant moment on a show court. But you would be wrong.
On this occasion, I’d like to give some credit to the men’s no.2 seed and world no.3, Alex ‘Sascha’ Zverev.
It may seem odd to describe a ‘breakout performance’ from the third best player on the planet, but this talented 21-year-old has really struggled to match his ability with results in the majors.
Despite that stellar ranking, eight tour titles and over $10.4 million in career prize money, the German has not managed a run to the last eight of a grand slam. He’s actually only made one journey to the fourth round of a major, at Wimbledon in 2017, in 11 main draw appearances.
While the primary reasons for this underperformance is likely the unique challenge of five sets and the burden of stratospheric expectations, Zverev has also lost to some handy players.
In Melbourne he succumbed to Andy Murray in 2016 and Rafael Nadal the following season, with an inspired Hyeon Chung accounting for him in January this year. There have also been understandable losses to Dominic Thiem, Tomas Berdych and Milos Raonic during that stretch.
That said, Zverev has so far failed to defeat a top 50 player at a grand slam. It’s particularly odd because elite opponents have hardly intimidated the Hamburg native in regular matches.
During his outstanding 2017 campaign, Zverev captured five ATP titles including two Masters 1000s in Rome and Montréal. Across the season he notched up victories over Federer, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Cilic, Raonic, Berdych and many more besides.
The 21-year-old has no problem utilising his gargantuan serve, smooth groundstrokes and tennis acumen on the main tour. Those elements have not meshed as well at the majors. But we may have seen a shift this week.
On Wednesday, Zverev’s second round opponent was the talented, confident and beatable world no.60, Dusan Lajovic. The Serbian has had some good form of late but his longest stay at a major was a venture to the fourth round in Paris back in 2014.
It was a match that the German was expected to win but, once again at a grand slam, it did not go to plan.
Zverev was broken in the first game and dropped the opening set 6-2. The Serbian played smartly in the first three sets, frustrating the German until a racket was shattered in disgust.
The no.2 seed rescued the second set despite this, but soon found himself 2-1 down and on the cusp of another early major exit.
Thankfully for his army of young fans on Court One, Zverev decided to dig in rather than check out. He chased balls relentlessly, got more first serves in the box and made better decisions.
The German made sure to control the elements within his reach and test whether the Serb could close it out.
Lajovic could not.
Zverev found the right combination to unlock his opponent and the door to the third round. He only coughed up a pair of games in the last two sets. The world no.3 found himself.
Moving forward, Zverev will next face Damir Dzumhur. This man from Sarajevo, ranked 29 in the world, actually defeated the German in their only meeting in Shenzhen last year.
However, I expect the man with the most wins on tour in 2018 (31) to level that head-to-head.
If Zverev makes it through Dzumhur, a place in a first grand slam quarter-final will once again hang before him. Finally, he looks ready to grasp it.