Zverev rebuilding on the comeback trail

 - Alex Sharp

The German suffered a horrific ankle injury during the semi-finals of Roland-Garros 2022.

Alexander Zverev, Monte-Carlo 2023© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Taking on Rafael Nadal on Court Philippe-Chatrier is one of the toughest tasks in world sport, just ask anyone who has faced the 14-time Roland-Garros champion.

Rewind to 3rd June 2022 and Alexander Zverev was rising to the that very occasion, locked in a compelling semi-final battle with the Spaniard.

However, at 7-6(8), 6-6 disaster struck for the challenger, Zverev tumbling to the ground, screeching in agony, before being taken away on a wheelchair.

"Anything could have happened"

It was a terrible strike of misfortune for Zverev, who was competing at the peak of his powers and vying for a second Grand Slam final ticket.

So much so, the 25-year-old believes he had the victory within his grasp prior to that injury.

"For some reason I did. I don't want to sound arrogant," Zverev told Eurosport.

Alexander Zverev, Monte-Carlo 2023© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

"Rafa is obviously the best player to ever play on that surface so you never know what happens. You never know what happens in that match as well. If I don't get injured, of course I could lose that match. Of course, he can go on to win his 14th Grand Slam.

"But I felt like I was playing my best tennis that I've ever played on that surface. So for some reason, I did feel like I could at least compete with him, which I was doing.

"The outcome of the match obviously, always depends on little factors as well. But I did feel like that could have been the week for me."

Surgery the only answer

The severity of the injury was immediately obvious as Zverev later learnt he had torn three ligaments in his right ankle.

Heading in for surgery was the path the 2020 US Open finalist was forced to take.

Last June the 19-time titlist posted this message on Instagram alongside a picture from his hospital bed; "We all have our own journey in life. This is part of mine," said Zverev.

"Next week I’ll reach a career high ranking of number 2 in the world, but this morning I had to undergo surgery.

"To return to competition as quickly as possible, to ensure all the ligaments heal properly, and to reclaim full stability in my ankle, surgery was the best choice. My rehab starts now and I’ll do everything to come back stronger than ever!"

Road to recovery

The 25-year-old couldn't walk for two months. The rehab from such a horrendous injury was always going to be gruelling, especially after the German suffered a bone edema last September.

2022 was officially written off.

He built up how to walk, how to run, how to push off again, all the essential tennis movements.

Zverev, fully aware it was going to take him months, more than weeks, to recapture confidence in his game, returned to competitive action in the team environment of the United Cup in January.

It was a tentative start, with straight sets losses in national colours to Taylor Fritz and Jiri Lehecka.

The former world No.2 didn't string together back-to-back victories until February. Over in Dubai his hard work was paying off, when he won three matches, falling narrowly short 6-3, 7-6(9) to Andrey Rublev at the semi-final stage.

On the Sunshine Swing, Zverev notched up two wins at Indian Wells, only ousted 6-7(5), 7-6(5), 7-5 by a red-hot Daniil Medvedev in the fourth round.

Within recent match play there were no obvious signs that Zverev had endured this brutal injury or rehabilitation. It seems when, not if, he'll be back at the top.

Comfort on the clay

The world No.16's fans should be feeling very optimistic for Zverev's road to Roland-Garros.

The 25-year-old has won six of his 19 titles on clay, including Masters 1000 trophies in Rome (2017) and Madrid (2018, 2022).

Zverev chose the Monte-Carlo Masters to kick-off his clay campaign this spring.

Twice a semi-finalist at the Principality (2018, 2022), he escaped an unpredictable opener against Alexander Bublik 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 and then dominated proceedings 6-4, 6-4 facing Roberto Bautista Agut.

"I have had two weeks of practice now. It is the most natural surface for me," said Zverev. "It usually takes me five or 10 minutes to get used to a clay court, but this year was a bit different.

"I needed to get the injury out of my head. I needed to get used to sliding again.”

Next up is a potentially pulsating third round over the net from the mischievous Medvedev. The world No.5 has previously experienced a love-hate relationship on clay courts, but has been in scorching recent form on hard courts, lifting four titles, from five finals in his past five events!

"We had an incredible match at Indian Wells," said Zverev in Monte-Carlo, ahead of his maiden meeting with Medvedev on the terre battue. "I definitely think it's going to be nothing less than that."

Medvedev edges their previous duels at 7-6 and a victory would be a standout move for Zverev.

Either way, the recovery, the results have been encouraging and with some momentum over the next few tournaments, the top seeds will expect to see Zverev with them in the latter stages of Roland-Garros once again.