MELBOURNE, Australia — Alexander Zverev has long been touted as a future Grand Slam champion. The problem is he can’t seem to get anywhere near the second week of a major, let alone contend for one.
The fourth-seeded Zverev made yet another puzzling early exit at a Grand Slam tournament, dropping 12 of the final 15 games in a 5-7, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 loss to fellow rising star Hyeon Chung in the third round of the Australian Open on Saturday.
The 20-year-old German player won five ATP tournaments last year, second only to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but has only reached the fourth round of a major once — at last year’s Wimbledon — and has never gone beyond.
More troubling, Zverev has notched multiple wins over top-10 players like Federer, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka at regular ATP tournaments, but has never managed to beat a player ranked in the top 50 at a major.
When asked after his match whether his problem in best-of-five-set matches was physical or mental, a downcast Zverev replied, “Definitely not physical.”
“I have some figuring out to do, what happens to me in deciding moments in Grand Slam,” he said. “It happened at Wimbledon. It happened in New York. It happened here.”
Zverev’s Grand Slam record is a paltry 14-11. Among those he’s lost to are Borna Coric (second round, 2017 U.S. Open), Dan Evans (second round, 2016 U.S. Open) and Fernando Verdasco (first round, 2017 French Open).
Part of the issue, Zverev admitted, was that he puts too much pressure on himself to do well at the slams.
“I’m still young, so I got time,” he said. “At the other tournaments, my three-set record is pretty decent over the last few years.”
Zverev said Federer had spoken to him in the locker room after the match and offered him some words of encouragement. Zverev didn’t elaborate too much, but Federer was happy to after his third-round win later Saturday.
“I just think it’s important to sometimes take a step back and actually see the good things you’ve done, give yourself time, maybe set the bar a bit lower,” Federer said
“That’s what I told Sascha. I said, ‘Be patient about it. Don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure. Learn from these mistakes. Whatever happened happened’. I just thought some nice words would maybe cheer him up.”
Against Chung, Zverev seemed to come apart inexplicably in the fourth set. He played at a high level for the first three sets, hitting 48 winners, including 19 aces, and making 27 unforced errors. He managed just nine winners to 24 unforced errors the rest of the match.
“I think game-wise, my level was good. I think I should have won in four sets,” he said.
Zverev said Chung had dramatically improved in the last year and is playing better than his current ranking of No. 58.
“This was a top-10 level match from the start till the end of the fourth set, and for him until the end,” he said. “When he plays like that, there are very, very few people who will beat him.”
Chung went undefeated last November to capture the title at the much-hyped NextGen ATP Finals, a tournament for the best eight players aged 21 and under. Zverev didn’t take part because he qualified for the ATP Finals in London.
And with his run in Melbourne, Chung becomes the first South Korean man to reach the fourth round at the Australian Open and just the third Korean player (male or female) ever to do it at a Grand Slam.
His next opponent is not ranked as high as Zverev, but presents just as daunting a challenge — six-time champion Novak Djokovic. The Serbian player, seeded 14th, beat Chung in straight sets in the first round two years ago.
“I have one more chance to play with a great player in the world,” he said. “I’m just happy to share the court with Novak.”
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