Throughout the past 10 days, as the French Open took shape, all of the attention in the men’s draw rested on a select few players.
Between the phenomenon of Carlos Alcaraz’s teenage breakthrough, the attempts of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to tread deeper into tennis’s history books and even the opportunity presented to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the vacant bottom half, few have had much to say about Alexander Zverev.
But a player rises to No 3 in the rankings for a reason. On a cool evening at Roland Garros, he showed why, remaining rock solid against an erratic Alcaraz and snuffing out the surrounding hype as he won 6-4, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (7) to reach the semi-finals.
Alcaraz had started the match immediately trying to impose his brand of high-octane, all-court tennis. But despite his intensity, his timing was completely off. Unforced errors flowed freely from his forehand and backhand alike. Zverev was far more consistent. He soaked up the Spaniard’s inside-out forehand with his own excellent backhand, which remarkably did not concede a single unforced error for two and a half sets. He served well, he pressed when needed and his historic weaknesses, his second serve and forehand, held up.
In the second set Alcaraz produced plenty of his usual spectacular moments but he simply could not find his level. As the third set began, he had hit four times as many groundstroke errors as Zverev, an enormous 28 to the German’s seven.
By the third set, Alcaraz was close to the edge and he eventually faced break point at 4-4. Without hesitation, he saved it with a bold drop shot, held and then made his move. With an exquisite return game, he extended the match after ending a long exchange with a brilliant forehand passing shot, then landing another delicate drop shot.
Not long after, the pair found themselves in an identical position in the fourth set, but as Zverev forced errors with the quality of his defence, Alcaraz crumbled, double-faulting on break point. No matter, as Zverev served for the match, he finally wobbled. He struck two nervous unforced errors and Alcaraz pounced, closing off the return game with uncompromising aggression and a crosscourt backhand winner.
In the tie-break they went back and forth, trading winners until the end. But Zverev, ultimately, was far bolder than he has ever been in a big grand-slam match. While Alcaraz saved the first match point, Zverev immediately generated a second and he refused to waste it, nailing a winning backhand down-the-line return to take the match.
With his victory Zverev has reached a notable milestone. Despite being a top-10 player for nearly five years, he has finally attained a top-10 win at a grand slam for the first time in his career.
By reaching his second consecutive semi-final at Roland Garros, he has additionally increased his chances of becoming the world No 1 when Djokovic’s Wimbledon points fall off next month. Zverev remains under investigation by the ATP after his ex-girlfriend, Olya Sharypova, publicly accused him of domestic violence, which he denies.
Alcaraz, meanwhile, has engineered an incredible arrival but his defeat should be met with perspective. Despite how easy he has made his tennis look, and how he has torn up the tour, none of this is simple. Especially not across the best-of five-set matches, a format the 19-year-old Spaniard is still learning.
Experience in these big moments, of which Zverev possesses a huge amount despite being unable to take the final step, counts for much. Reaching a quarter-final in his second French Open is an achievement in itself, and the goal for Alcaraz should be to learn from this and return even more refined next time.