Finding balance off court leads Zverev back to French Open quarters

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PARIS — Ever since he first emerged on Tour as a tall, gangly 16-year-old, Alexander Zverev has been tipped for the top, a confident teenager with a big game and big expectations on his shoulders.

With three ATP Masters 1000 titles by the time he was 21, he was singled out as the man most likely to break the stranglehold at the top, the one who might breach the Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka domination of the sport’s biggest titles. He was the leader of the “Next Gen,” the younger generation of players, and the man most likely to step up.

With that came pressure. Though he was matching the big guns at the Masters level, it took until last year’s French Open before he reached his first Grand Slam quarterfinal.

As this year’s clay-court season began in Monte Carlo, he revealed he had changed his management company; his father, Alexander Sr., had health issues; and Zverev had ended his relationship with his girlfriend. All of a sudden, he needed to deal with a lot of things on his own.

“I am grown up now,” said the 22-year-old Zverev, who reached the last eight at Roland Garros for the second successive year Monday, beating Italian Fabio Fognini 3-6, 6-2, 6-2, 7-6. “I had to do a lot of things that I usually don’t do, as I said, a lot of management stuff, a lot of lawyer stuff, so things that I’m not used to doing. With the situation, I’m sure you know about it, with my ex-manager, it wasn’t easy. So, you know, those kind of things took my focus away a little bit from tennis. But … I’m in the quarterfinals here, so something seems to be working all right now.”

Zverev lost to Fognini in the third round in Monte Carlo, and then lost early in Barcelona and Munich. It was only in Madrid, where he reached the quarterfinals, that he started to show signs of a return to form, eventually losing to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the last eight. It is well-known on the Tour that Zverev and Tsitsipas are not exactly bosom buddies, but as he contemplates a clash with No. 1 Djokovic, the German said the rise of the Greek as the new kid on the block has actually been a major factor in his resurgence.

“For me, the best thing that could have happened for me is how good Tsitsipas’ clay-court season was,” Zverev said. “That was the best thing that could have happened to me, to be honest. I actually do believe that. I’m happy for him.

“He played a great match yesterday (losing in five sets to Wawrinka). Unfortunately, not going his way. But … both of them, Stan and him played unbelievably well. So he can be proud of something, as well.

“But yeah, as I said, he was kind of the new superstar all of a sudden. And for me, it was actually quite a nice thing that not all of the attention of the kind of Next Gen thing is only going towards my way.”

In Paris, Zverev has also largely been going it alone, with his coach, Ivan Lendl, conspicuous by his absence. Lendl, who helped Murray get over the line and win Grand Slam titles, was not in Madrid or Rome, and having planned to come for a week’s practice before Paris, he stayed at home while Zverev played Geneva, the week before coming to Roland Garros.

Zverev won the title in Geneva without playing his best, but as the No. 5 seed, he has grown in confidence this week. He followed his win over No. 30 seed Dusan Lajovic of Serbia with arguably his best performance of the year in beating Fognini, seeded ninth and the winner in Monte Carlo.

With things more settled, Lendl will return to his side for the grass-court season. Zverev is playing with more focus and more poise, as he showed against Fognini, when he didn’t panic after losing the first set and held his nerve in the fourth-set tiebreak.

“Everything in my life is actually very good, so there is nothing major to worry about,” he said. “Obviously on the tennis court, as I said, I was not playing my best. I was not being aggressive. I was not being myself a little bit. That changed a little bit.

“Today you saw it, the break points down I had, I kind of won them in an aggressive way always or saved them. So that was a good thing. I’m happy to get through and hopefully I can get another chance to play a great match here.”

Last year, Zverev was injured in his quarterfinal with Dominic Thiem and ended up well-beaten. This year, he is fully fit, relatively fresh and ready to go. Even if beating Djokovic would be a big surprise, he is in a good place.

“I just wish that it’s going to be a great match and it’s going to be a tough battle,” he said. “Especially against Novak, the world No. 1, it’s going to be interesting.”

It might have taken a shake-up in his personal life to get him back on track, but Zverev’s star is on the rise once more.