Since his Wimbledon debacle, Alexander Zverev is enjoying a dream run on hard courts this season. The 24-year-old German has been in scintillating form. His 16-match winning streak that includes triumphs at the Tokyo Olympics and Cincinnati Masters attest to his rise. No one ever doubted Zverev’s potential, but his performances failed to match his talent in the earlier parts of his career. That seems to be changing with each passing season. The tall German has risen in stature following his Gold Medal victory at the Olympics earlier last month, defeating mighty Novak Djokovic en route to his monumental triumph.
Alexander Zverev vs Novak Djokovic
When Zverev and Djokovic last met, in their semifinal clash at the Tokyo Olympics, the latter was on a 22-match unbeaten streak, and upsetting the Serb appeared to be an impossible task. However, Zverev did the unthinkable, and the way he won the third set made Djokovic look pedestrian.
Back at the Olympics, the World No.1 eventually ran out of steam. He appeared fatigued following his euphoric wins at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. The best of three sets format suited Zverev, who relishes playing on hard courts.
However, the backdrop at the ongoing US Open is drastically different. Zverev must not only punch above his weight but also be willing to suffer if he fancies unsettling the Serb in the treacherous best-of-five-sets contest.
On that note, let’s take a closer look at the keys for Zverev as he prepares himself to embrace the litmus test against Djokovic in their semifinal on Friday.
Keys to the Match for Zverev
#1: Impeccable Serving
One of Zverev’s main weapons that Zverev is his huge serve. The 24-year-old is one of the most impressive servers among the younger crop of players. He has a clean service motion and uses his height beautifully to win free points on his serves. He is twice as effective when he is serving well. However, Zverev’s drastic deceleration on his second serve has haunted him severely in the past, and was one of the main reasons behind his shattering loss to Dominic Thiem in last year’s final at New York.
While Zverev has improved tremendously since then, he cannot afford any rustiness or nerves in his services games, especially against the best returner the sport has ever seen. Zverev mustn’t fall behind and award Djokovic any free points on his service games. The German must serve impeccably if he fancies putting Djokovic under pressure.
#2: Strike early
While Djokovic has cruised into the semifinals without a major hiccup, the Serb has been uncharacteristically slow to start off the blocks, conceding the opening set in each of his last three rounds. Alexander Zverev must aim to strike early and strike first, looking to pounce even on half a chance that Djokovic offers. While the 20-time Grand Slam champion has shown enough resilience to bounce back with flying colors after conceding the opening set in the previous rounds, he hasn’t faced a player of Zverev’s talent at this year’s US Open. If Zverev can maintain his focus and consistency, Djokovic might find himself in a precarious situation. Perhaps then the Serb can crumble, providing Zverev with an opportunity to make serious inroads.
>#3: Pepper Djokovic forehand
Djokovic does not have a weak forehand by any stretch of the imagination, but he certainly has a devastating backhand. Zverev himself has a decent backhand, but his forehand wing is his stronghold. He has a greater chance of surviving cross-court forehand rallies than backhand ones. With the pace of Zverev’s forehand strokes, Djokovic might find it difficult to change the direction of the ball, thereby minimizing the chances of exposing the German’s backhand wing. By peppering the Serb’s forehand, Zverev can rob Djokovic of playing to his strength.
#4: Take calculated risks by approaching the net to keep the points shorter
Novak Djokovic is known for his endurance and his superhuman ball retrieving skills from behind the baseline. The longer the match stretches, the more it favors the Serb, who has time and again proved that he is a fitter and stronger player than the younger generation of players. He showed that in abundance in his remarkable victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas French Open final earlier this year, after being two sets to love down.
Considering Djokovic’s watertight defense from behind the baseline, Zverev must aim to be more proactive and must be willing to take calculated risks in a bid to unsettle the Serb’s rhythm. The German should seize the opportunity by approaching the net whenever possible to keep the points shorter. The lengthier the rallies, the harder it might be for Zverev to sustain over the course of five sets.
Previously accused of not performing well at the Majors, Zverev has come a long way by consistently going deep at the Grand Slams in the last couple of seasons. Nonetheless, he is yet to record a win against a Top 10 player at any Major. Considering the form that he is in and the magnitude of the occasion, this might be his best chance to change that and thereby write one of the finest chapters of his career against the world’s best.
It won’t be easy, but certainly not impossible.
Main Photo from Getty.