Zverev roars past Tiafoe

German survives stiff challenge in entertaining late-night affair

Alexander Zverev, 3e tour, Roland-Garros 2023 ©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT
 - Nick McCarvel

Alexander Zverev and Frances Tiafoe’s Saturday night under the lights may not have stretched into a deciding fifth set, but the dramatic, three-hour, 41-minute affair lasted into the early hours of Sunday morning.

It was then that two-time Paris semi-finalist Zverev roared to victory, overcoming a spirited challenge from the American to book a spot in the fourth round for a sixth consecutive year at Roland-Garros with a 3-6, 7-6(3), 6-1, 7-6(5) triumph.

The German said on court after the match it’s just nearly one year since his horrendous ankle injury against Rafael Nadal on the Court Philippe-Chatrier, so the win was extra special: “It’s been the hardest year of my life,” Zverev said.

Next up? A resurgent Grigor Dimitrov, who is into the fourth round here for a first time since 2020.

Story of the match

Tiafoe had the better start, and a break in the sixth game for the No.12 seed was consolidated to give him a 5-3 lead. Zverev crumbled in that game, however, double-faulting on set point as Tiafoe stole the set with a second break.

But Zverev, a Grand Slam runner-up at the US Open in 2020, righted himself quickly, breaking to start set two only to give that break right back. But midway through the second, the 198cm German looked more energised. He didn’t convert break points in the seventh game, but the intent was there: He was locked in.

He proved it in the second-set tiebreak, going up 5-3 and then getting a stroke of luck when a forehand was called in that TV replays later showed to be long. But the chair umpire would not answer Tiafoe’s plea to come check the mark and Zverev closed out the set with a crunching forehand winner cross-court.

The momentum was his, Zverev shrugging off a first-game break in set three by breaking right back and then playing a standout set: Tiafoe wouldn’t hold again and won just three points on serve all set, clearly feeling mentally taxed.

The clock was just about to strike 11pm local Paris time and Zverev was in control: Two sets to one.

The fourth is when the match reached a true crescendo, however, both men playing some of their best tennis all night. As Zverev dealt with second-serve yips, Tiafoe got more gutsy with his drop shot attempts.

Frances Tiafoe, Roland-Garros 2023, third round© Andre Ferreira/FFT

But Tiafoe blinked when he needed to be clear-eyed. He couldn’t serve out the fourth at 5-3 after getting pumped up by a break in the previous game. Tiafoe had another good look at sending it to a fifth in the 12th game with Zverev serving at 5-6, love-30, but he couldn’t convert.

The tiebreak played out as Saturday turned to Sunday, one of the most entertaining points of the night exchanged at 3-3 as both players came into net, criss-crossing one another with tricky slice angles. Tiafoe would gain the mini-break lead at 4-3, but he dropped both points on his serve.

A service winner up the T gave Zverev match point, and then Tiafoe swung a forehand wide, Zverev raising his arms overhead and letting out a deafening roar at his players’ box as the Chatrier crowd roared right back at him.

Alexander Zverev, Roland-Garros 2023, third round© Andre Ferreira/FFT

Key stats

The double fault threatened to haunt Zverev, but 10 of them were offset by 13 aces on the night, too, and he would win 71 per cent of first-serve points compared to Tiafoe’s 65 per cent.

Both men would break five times in the match, but Zverev seemed to be more comfortable putting his foot on the gas in pressure moments: He hit 41 winners to 34 for Tiafoe, while the American had a few more unforced errors, too, 51 to 46.

Tiafoe didn’t hesitate using the front court all night, hitting 23 drop shots and going 24 for 41 at the net, but Zverev was 24 of 44 at the net, too, both men being aggressive off the ground – and out of the air.

What the winner said

Zverev said on court his tactic was clear: Keep points short and keep Tiafoe off his favourite place in tennis: The highlight reel.

“I’m trying to make the match as short as possible. I’m trying to not let him smile,” Zverev said of Tiafoe’s shot-making prowess. “Once he has that smile on his face, he plays his best tennis. We are entertainers, yes, but I’m trying to win the match.”

The aforementioned horrible fall in 2022 against Nadal in the semis cost him the remainder of the season with torn ligaments, and this weekend marks one year since that moment for Zverev.

“I love tennis more than anything in the world, I don’t play for the money or the fame, I play for the pure sport,” he told Mats Wilander in the on-court interview. “I play for the competitiveness, and I love being in front of [the crowd]. Being away from that, having that taken away from me... I’m so happy to be playing these big battles again.”

He added: “Hopefully it’s going to be a fun second week for me because I’m here to stay.”