Whether Alejandro Davidovich Fokina has been playing beer pong or not in the US Open bubble remains unknown. But he is certainly stepping up his game on the court. At 21 years of age, Davidovich is the youngest Spaniard to reach the round of 16 of a Grand Slam since Rafael Nadal at the 2008 Australian Open and, on Sunday, he’ll attempt to upset fifth seed Alexander Zverev, in what looks like one of the more intriguing matches of the fourth round.
Davidovich Fokina’s presence in the second week in New York is a surprise, but thanks to his engaging style of play, it is a pleasant one. The Málaga native, who had never beaten a Top 100 opponent on hard court, has collected three consecutive victories over world #85 Dennis Novak, 24th seed Hubert Hurkacz and world #76 Cameron Norrie, the British #3. Although he was not at his best against Novak, he was able to dominate for long stretches against the supposedly superior Hurkacz and Norrie.
Eye-catching strokes: no longer a priority for Davidovich Fokina
With Nick Kyrgios missing in action and Alexander Bublik eliminated in the opening round, Davidovich Fokina is the lone representative of the Underarm Serving Brotherhood still in contention at the US Open. Indeed, he clinched the first set against Hurkacz by deploying this oft-criticized weapon. But trickery and touch is always on show when Davidovich Fokina takes to the court, with the world #99 having regularly turned to the drop shot throughout the first week.
Some ill-timed and poorly executed attempts have backfired, but at the very least he’s wearing his rivals down and keeping them guessing. That unpredictability may be costly at times, but it can also be a valuable weapon. He also escaped from a high-pressure situation versus Norrie with one acrobatic volley that needs to be seen to be believed. Nonetheless, it appears his penchant for chasing highlight-worthy shots merely for the sake of it is a thing of the past.
“Currently I’m not focused on producing hot shots,” he told Eurosport. “My goal is to play well and stay relaxed. [If that’s the case] hot shots will come naturally.”
That’s a step in the right direction. This quote came in August after a full week of intense practices in Marbella with Novak Djokovic. Of course, the Serbian is no stranger to drop shots himself. But he is also one of the most disciplined and focused players in the men’s game, and it appears that Davidovich Fokina has learned from the world #1’s example. But he may need to summon a Djokovic-like performance if he is to reach the quarterfinals.
Major underdog against Zverev
Davidovich Fokina has never faced, let alone beaten, a player of Zverev’s status. Unsurprisingly, that has left him as the underdog heading into their match, with the German a 90.8% favorite according to Tennis Abstract. And it is possible that the match will be determined principally by Zverev, or more specifically, by how well he serves. The German’s first delivery rightly commands respect, but his woes behind his second serve are well documented.
That could spell trouble against a returner of Davidovich Fokina’s quality. So far, the Spaniard has created break-point chances at will, having already produced a remarkable 51 in just three matches. Unless Zverev is winning plenty of free points with his first serve, he could quickly find himself in a real dogfight. One bright spot for the Hamburg native could be when returning, however, with Davidovich Fokina’s serve adequate rather than mighty.
As a result, the 21-year-old will need to dominate the baseline rallies and keep Zverev off-balance with judicious use of his trademark drop shots. From the baseline, Davidovich can go toe to toe, especially if they play on a (slower) show court. But regardless of where they are playing, it is hard to see the unconventional Spaniard feeling intimidated by the occasion.
“[Davidovich Fokina] is a bit crazy,” countryman Pablo Carreño Busta told El País. “But that allows him to be aggressive and bold in crunch time, which is a big advantage in our sport.”
Having entered the US Open with a poor 3-7 record in 2020, Davidovich Fokina has risen to the occasion on the big stage. But now, ahead of his biggest challenge yet and with a place in rarified air of a Grand Slam quarterfinal on the line, the question is: can he catch fire and defeat Zverev?
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