Three's a company, five's a crowd: Alexander Zverev's improvement still yet to see Grand Slam heights

Four titles this year for the young German but only one second week of a Grand Slam. The German must hit another level once more to see his talent reach proper heights.

Three's a company, five's a crowd: Alexander Zverev's improvement still yet to see Grand Slam heights
A disappointed Alexander Zverev looks on after his US Open loss to Borna Coric (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Back in January, I wrote this piece on Alexander Zverev and how his heartbreaking loss to Rafael Nadal in Indian Wells last year changed him for the better. Over a year and a half later, the 20-year-old has shown exponential growth claiming four titles, including two Masters 1000s. Despite that, his record in Grand Slams this year is a mere 6-4. 

With those four titles and five finals to his name, Zverev has mastered the art of canvas painting in men's tennis, the best-of-three. But for him to reach the heights of painting the Sistine Chapel, to paint the canvas that only very few have, he must master the best-of-five set battles.

The New Hope In Melbourne

Two four set third round losses aren't at all bad results for a 19-year-old who went through his first full run of majors last year. When someone is trying to steadily grow, the next step is to always go one round further. 

Seeded 24th at the Australian Open, Zverev found himself down two sets to one against Robin Haase. He bounced back to win in five sets and followed that up with a victory over American Francis Tiafoe in straight sets. 

His third round match was a tough ask as he met Nadal, the man he met in Indian Wells in 2016 where he missed the sitting volley on match point. On the pacy courts of Melbourne, the German exerted his powerful groundstrokes on the Spaniard who many had on upset alert given his hardships the previous two seasons. 

Given that the champion that he is, the 16-time major champion mounted his comeback to win in five despite the sweat Zverev put into this match. The turning point of this match came after the German broke back for two-all in the decisive set. The fifth game turned the match away for good as the world number four held a 40-15 lead but saw it vanish.

The 15-point marathon saw the true colors of Zverev's handling of the grueling battles of a best-of-five set match. He began to cramp which showed not only signs of fatigue but the lack of match fitness he had for these kinds of marathons. You could see his spirit starting to break, just going for broke on anything he could without investing much effort.  Nadal broke in that game, breaking the German's will before eventually winning the thriller. 

​ Alexander Zverev struggled with cramps in the Australian Open thriller vs Rafael Nadal (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)   Click and drag to move ​
Alexander Zverev struggled with cramps in the Australian Open thriller vs Rafael Nadal (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images) 
 

#FindYourself

After the Australian Open and some Davis Cup play, Zverev played in Montpelier. The German loved to live on the edge in France, winning three consecutive final sets before advancing to the final where he defeated Richard Gasquet. He failed to use the title from Montpelier as a launching pad for the season, struggling to find his rhythm in Rotterdam, Marseille, and Indian Wells. 

The second half of the Sunshine Double, the Miami Open, was where he began to find his game once again. Wins over Fernando Verdasco, Marin Cilic, and Tomas Berdych set up a showdown of the future stars as he faced off with Nick Kyrgios

That matchup was a battle of raw power as the two duked it out. Many could sense that a huge breakthrough was set to come from Zverev after saving a couple of match points in the second set tiebreak. Once again though, it was not meant to be as Kyrgios earned the right to take on Roger Federer, the eventual champion. 

The first of four titles on the year for Zverev came in Montpelier (ATP World Tour)
The first of four titles on the year for Zverev came in Montpelier (ATP World Tour)

Dirty Dancing

The clay was where "Sascha" began to make his presence this year known. Yes, he was blasted by Nadal in Monte Carlo but not many had the fortitude to test the King of Clay in his red European palace. He shook off a shocking upset to Hyeon Chung in Barcelona to claim his second title which came on home soil in Munich. 

A defeat to an inspired Pablo Cuevas in Madrid wasn't too much of a shocker but the bagel in the second set was. In his opening match in Rome, the German gave us another first round thriller with Kevin Anderson, taking it in three. The ATP NextGen Star has a knack for getting by the skin of his teeth in opening rounds, and the Italian Open was no exception. 

Similarly to Montpelier, he used his narrow opening win to gather momentum throughout the event. He took out a strong contingent of Viktor Troicki, Fabio Fognini, Milos Raonic, and John Isner to reach a maiden Masters final. While none of those four are keen to playing on the clay, barring Fognini, all obviously posed dangerous threats on their day. 

The man who had claimed the most Masters met the kid in his first as Novak Djokovic was tasked at denying Zverev his biggest career title and his first on clay. The Serb looked a shadow of his former self, getting outplayed and outclassed by the 20-year-old. A magnificent all-around performance from Zverev saw him claim that maiden Masters title and clearly marked as one of the favorites outside of Nadal and Andy Murray to win the French Open.

Zverev claimed his first Masters title in Rome (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Zverev claimed his first Masters title in Rome (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Patrick Swayze once said in Dirty Dancing, "Fight harder, huh? I don't see you fightin' so hard...". That quote could have been used for the German's camp for a struggling Zverev in his first round French Open match vs Fernando Verdasco. Seeded ninth, the German could not have gotten a worse player to see in the opening round as the Spaniard can play freely with nothing to lose despite clay favoring the German. 

After going two sets to one down, you saw the lack of heart that Zverev had left. Unforced errors, lazy movement saw the German bow out in the first round much to the disappointment of everyone who thought this could be his chance to make a massive move with a struggling Kei Nishikori and Murray in this section.

A dejected Zverev reacts to his opening round loss at the French Open (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
A dejected Zverev reacts to his opening round loss at the French Open (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

The Weaker The Better

The grass season is the shortest of the year with only a few weeks between the French Open and Wimbledon. The German is an all-court player, but if he did have a weak surface, it would be the tennis lawns. A semifinal at 's-Hertogenbosch was followed by making the final in his home country in Halle. He was comprehensively beaten by Federer as the Swiss maestro captured a ninth title in Halle.

Surprisingly, Wimbledon was the best major of the year for Zverev, making his only second week of the season at the All-England Club. It helped the 20-year-old that he didn't have to face a player in the top-60 en route to the fourth round, but another golden opportunity slipped from his grasp once again.

Similarly to the Australian Open, the German led two sets to one in this matchup. The vaunted 40-15 scoreline came to haunt him once again, getting broken to drop the fourth set despite holding two game points to force a tiebreak. Raonic captured a break early enough in the decider to allow him to serve freely, winning the final set 6-1.

Zverev walks off after his fourth round loss to Milos Raonic at Wimbledon (Steven Paston/PA Images/Getty Images)
Zverev walks off after his fourth round loss to Milos Raonic at Wimbledon (Steven Paston/PA Images/Getty Images)

(North) America The Beautiful

Starting off his hard court season in the US capital, Zverev had to pull off another narrow victory in his opener against Jordan Thompson. The German looked strong after that, winning the Citi Open without dropping a set which included wins over Nishikori and Anderson. 

Zverev kicked off his North American hard court season with a title in DC (Taso Katopodis/Getty Images)
Zverev kicked off his North American hard court season with a title in DC (Taso Katopodis/Getty Images)

He took his talents North of the Border to Montreal, ready to try and capture a second Masters 1000 title. He battled Richard Gasquet in his opening match and looked like he could cruise in the final set, but the Frenchman mounted a comeback. Zverev was forced to save match points before once again winning in a third set tiebreak.

He eliminated two familiar foes in Kyrgios and Anderson before playing teenage sensation Denis Shapovalov. The young Canadian played well for the most part, but a couple of miscues here and there gave Zverev a right to play in the final vs Federer. 

Zverev overwhelmed the Swiss at parts in the match, but it was also the stiff back from the 19-time Grand Slam champion that hampered as the German roared his way to a second Masters title on the year.

Zverev claimed his second Masters title in Montreal (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images0
Zverev claimed his second Masters title in Montreal (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images0

You could tell that the back-to-back titles took a lot out of the 20-year-old over the few weeks as he labored in his loss to Tiafoe in Cincinnati. The early loss did mean a little more rest headed to the US Open where he entered as the fourth seed. He was placed into the bottom half of the draw which was wide open as the two favorites in Nadal and Federer were on course for a semifinal showdown. 

Not, Not Knocking On Heaven's Door

It was already the dream scenario for Zverev to see his two rivals in terms for the title be placed on the other half of the draw. It became the goose that laid the golden egg for him to make his first deep run at a major after Murray pulled out of the tournament and was subsequently replaced in the bottom half by a rusty Cilic. 

He looked far from convincing in his opening round vs Darrian King of Barbados. He took nearly three hours to eliminate King in straights and even had to save set points in the first set tiebreak. 

After taking the opening set from Borna Coric, the Croatian turned it on and played some inspired tennis, especially in the fourth set. The Croat was down 0-30 in most of his service games but still managed to hang in there before stunning the German in four sets. Opportunity knocked, knocked, knocked on the US Open door for the German, and he wasn't there to answer.

Zverev reacts during his second round loss to the US Open (Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty Images)
Zverev reacts during his second round loss to the US Open (Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty Images)

Grow, Grow, Grow Your Boat

Zverev has slowly grown into his body but still has to adapt. Three years ago, the German was slowly getting into weight training and started with a deadlift of 40 kilograms. By the time July of this year rolled around, he was deadlifting 150 kilograms. The weight training is there, but what he still needs to improve is the fitness. 

You can see in his body language that he struggles to keep up in the longer matches of Grand Slams, ranked opponent or not. Once the improved fitness comes, so will the deep runs. It has still been a brilliant (and can be even more brilliant) 2017 for Zverev. However, 2018's Grand Slam results will have to significantly surpass what he did in 2017, or we'll really begin to see that three's a company and five's a crowd for young Alexander Zverev.