Zverev Reaches Maiden Slam Semi-final In Melbourne
With 11 ATP Tour titles to his name, including the 2018 Nitto ATP Finals, it was a question of when and not if Alexander Zverev would have a Grand Slam breakthrough. That moment came on Wednesday, with the seventh seed defeating 2014 champion and No. 15 seed Stan Wawrinka 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 for his first major championship semi-final at the Australian Open.
"After that first set, I was getting ready to talk to the press about why I lost in straight sets," Zverev joked in his on-court interview. "I turned it around and my energy picked up a bit. I wasn't used to his ball... I needed a set to get used it. Thank God it worked out.
"It feels awesome. I’ve done well in other tournaments, but I could never break that barrier in Grand Slams. I’m happy to be in the semi-finals. You can’t imagine what this means to me and I hope it will be the first of many.”
The 22-year-old has been in top form this fortnight, dropping just one set en route to reaching the last four in Melbourne. Zverev has not only showcased the blistering power tennis that brought him to a career-high of No. 3 in the FedEx ATP Rankings, but also proved that he can problem solve during challenging moments in matches.
Awaiting him in the next round is fifth-seeded Austrian Dominic Thiem. He’s 2-6 against Thiem in their series, with the Austrian prevailing two months ago in the semi-finals of the season finale at The O2 in London.
”I’ll have a cold glass of Coca-Cola in my hotel room, with air conditioning, hopefully watching them play for six hours,” Zverev said. “That’s my assessment of that match.”
Zverev started slowly and struggled to find the range on his shots. The German missed a half-volley to lose his opening service game, then shanked a forehand into the stands two games later to trail by a double break.
Meanwhile, Wawrinka came out in peak form. Opening up on his backhand and leaning into his forehand, he cracked winners from all parts of the court and dominated their baseline exchanges. The Swiss raced through the first five games and dropped just three points on serve (16/19) en route to taking the opening set.
“I started really well. He was a little bit nervous at the beginning. I could feel he was not playing freely. I was playing really aggressive, moving well, putting a lot of pressure all the time, every shot,” said Wawrinka.
Zverev adjusted his tactics in the second set and began playing high-risk tennis in a bid to keep the points short. He beefed up his first-serve percentage from 61 per cent in the first set to 90 per cent in the second set, allowing him to create one-two punches with his forehand and convincingly cruise through his service games.
“I know how well he can play,” said Wawrinka. “For sure, he had some trouble with his serve before this tournament… The two times I played him, he was serving unbelievable and I had some trouble to break him. I know how well he can serve. Today, he was putting a lot of pressure with his serve.”
The added pressure resulted in Wawrinka’s normally reliable forehand breaking down. With his unforced error count in the second set nearly triple that of the first set (11 to 4), his mistakes enabled Zverev to grab the lone break of the set at 4-3 and go on to level the match.
Both players traded early breaks to start the third set, but Zverev was steadier in rallies as Wawrinka continued to blow hot and cold. The seventh seed broke once more at 2-2 after a grueling 20-shot rally saw the Swiss hit a slice backhand into the net.
As Wawrinka’s confidence in his forehand continued to diminish, he stopped stepping into it and appeared uncertain with his footing when attacking short balls. The 2014 champion attempted to work around the problem and bravely saved two set points at 3-5, eventually holding serve with a trademark backhand winner. But the deficit was too much to overcome and Zverev comfortably held in the next game for a commanding advantage.
Zverev continued to grow in confidence with each game as he sprinted to the finish line. The match came full circle as it was Zverev who charged to a 4-0 lead in the final set and closed out the match on his first attempt after two hours and 19 minutes. He finished the day with 34 winners to 28 unforced errors.
"I didn't feel the ball quite well in the first set, because I played all my matches in the evening when it was much, much colder," said Zverev. "Today was very hot on court. The ball was flying off my racquet much more. He was also playing quite heavy. It was difficult to handle his ball... I got used to it and could start playing my game a little bit better. Luckily I could turn it around."
Despite the loss, Wawrinka has plenty to be encouraged about with his start to the year. The 34-year-old prevailed in two five-set matches this fortnight, including a fourth-round thriller over fourth seed Daniil Medvedev, to record his best result at this event since 2017. Wawrinka opened his season with a semi-final finish in Doha.