The case for: Alexander Zverev

Two clay titles and a tour-best 30 wins in 2018 could pre-empt a major breakthrough at Roland-Garros.

Alexander Zverev victoireux au tournoi ATP de Munich/ Alezander Zverev winning in Munchen.© DPA/ABACA
 - Michael Beattie

“We’re going to do one thing – if he’s not playing well in Grand Slams in the next two years, you can come back to me and tell me: You don’t know anything about tennis.”

So said Rafael Nadal after overcoming an inspired Alexander Zverev to claim an eighth title in Rome, a champion’s endorsement for the young contender-in-chief. Yes, the German is yet to reach the quarter-finals or beat a top-50 opponent at a major, anomalies that seem more and more absurd with each passing week. But Nadal is not the only observer backing "Sascha" for Grand Slam success – and, on the evidence of his exploits in early 2018, Paris may be the perfect setting for his highly anticipated breakthrough.

That winning habit

Zverev has won more ATP matches than any other player this season – and by some distance. His 30 wins and eight defeats so far in 2018 outstrips Dominic Thiem’s 25-8 record, Rafael Nadal’s 23-2 and Juan Martin del Potro’s 23-6 heading into Roland-Garros. The Munich and Madrid champion is also one of just five players with multiple titles to his name this year, joining Nadal (3), Del Potro (2), Roger Federer (2) and Roberto Bautista-Agut (2).

Alexander Zverev s'impose au Masters 1000 de Madrid/Alexander Zverev wins Madrid© Denis Doyle/AFP

A near-perfect clay season

Had it not been for Sunday’s untimely downpour in Rome – and an almighty third-set fightback from Nadal – Zverev might be heading to Paris with back-to back Masters 1000 titles, such was his form on the terre battue in the run-up to Roland-Garros. A semi-final appearance in Monte-Carlo was followed by back-to-back titles in Munich and Madrid, his third Masters 1000 crown. Nadal found himself on the ropes in the final in Rome as Zverev claimed nine of 11 games to open up a 1-6, 6-1, 3-1 lead, only for the Spaniard to run away with the decider after a rain delay.

Serving notice

The serve is seldom considered a weapon on clay in the manner it is on grass and hard courts, but Zverev managed to unleash its full potential during his twin title run. The German was unbroken in Munich and Madrid as he claimed both titles – a staggering display, particularly in the Spanish capital, where he did not drop a set. Critical to the German’s success was his conversion rate behind his second serve: he won the point 76 per cent of the time, a huge jump from his 52 per cent average for the past 12 months, as he built the point expertly behind a delivery with ever-increasing variety.

Alexander Zverev adidas x Roland-Garros

The arrogance of youth

While the lack of a deep run at the majors is something the 21-year-old wants to set right, it is not cause for concern in his eyes. “That’s nothing to worry about too much,” he said at the Australian Open, where he lost to eventual semi-finalist Hyeon Chung. “A lot of times [it was] not because I played bad, but because I played very good opponents. I lost to Nadal here, I lost to Raonic in Wimbledon – every time in five sets … I've shown on multiple occasions that I can play and beat the best guys in the world.”

Arrogance? Perhaps. But there’s truth in his assessment: he has a 15-19 record when facing opponents ranked in the top 10, including victories over Roger Federer on grass and hard courts, and Novak Djokovic on clay. Two notable exceptions heading into Roland-Garros: Nadal (0-5) and Juan Martin del Potro (0-2).

Time on his side – but no time like the present

It’s remarkable to think that Zverev is set to compete in just his 12th Grand Slam next week, given his status as the de facto No.2 seed. But a Grand Slam triumph would not be a departure from recent history: Federer won his first Grand Slam title in his 17th major appearance at the age of 22, while Djokovic won on his 13th major attempt and Nadal his sixth.

“Hopefully I'll be able to play the same kind of tennis like I did in the last three weeks,” he said in Rome. “We'll see. The next few days, I will not even think about tennis. And then I'll go to Paris and do my best to prepare and try to compete for the French Open. Of course, Rafa will be the favourite there, there's no question about it. I'll be in the other half of the draw, so that's a good thing.”