For two full sets, Alexander Zverev was confused and listless, his body language as poor as his winner-to-error ratio against Pablo Carreno-Busta in the U.S. Open semifinals Friday.
Zverev double-faulted and smacked his left high. He put a backhand into the net to cede the opening set and covered his face with both hands. He netted a forehand early in the next set — part of a stretch in which he dropped nine points in a row and 17 of 19 — turned a forlorn face toward his guest box and put his palms up.
When he pushed a backhand long after 1 hour, 25 minutes of play and shook his head, Zverev trailed by two sets, a deficit the 23-year-old German never had overcome. Never had been to a Grand Slam final, either. Done and done. Zverev constructed quite a comeback, getting his game in gear to beat a fading Carreno-Busta 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3 and reach the title match at Flushing Meadows.
“I was like, `I can’t believe it. I’m playing in the semifinal, where I’m supposed to be the favourite, and I’m down two sets to love and I have no chance. I’m playing that bad,”‘ Zverev said. “So I knew I had to come up with better tennis, and I knew that I had to be more stable.”
Zverev is the first man to win a U.S. Open semifinal after a 2-0 set deficit since Novak Djokovic did it against Roger Federer in 2011 — and, keeping good company, he’s also the youngest male finalist at any major tournament since Djokovic was 23 in New York in 2010.
WATCH | Germany’s Zverev punches ticket to U.S. Open final:
Zverev, the No. 5 seed, will play No. 2 Dominic Thiem or No. 3 Daniil Medvedev for the championship Sunday.
It had been 16 years since Grand Slam semifinals were held without at least one of Federer, Djokovic or Rafael Nadal involved.
None of the semifinalists owns a Grand Slam trophy yet.
Zverev has been considered likely to grab one, given his success at other events and all of the talent in his 6-foot-6 (1.98-metre) frame.
His first trip to a major semifinal came in January at the Australian Open, where he was eliminated by Thiem.
Now he’s gone a step further. Didn’t look like he would in the early going Friday in a mostly silent and empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, where spectators are barred because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Zverev bounces back mid-match
A day after a pair of well-played and competitive women’s semifinals — won by Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka, who face each other Saturday for the championship — Carreno-Busta vs. Zverev offered little in the way of those characteristics for two sets.
That was primarily Zverev’s fault. He was tentative, unsure of himself, willing to stay back and leisurely exchange groundstrokes from the back of the court.
It was an inadvisable strategy against a human wall like the 20th-seeded Carreno-Busta, who might not do much spectacularly but certainly does everything solidly.
It’s not as if Carreno-Busta was impeccable. Yes, his forehand was working well, and he wasn’t making many mistakes. But one indication of his own uneven play: Carreno-Busta was broken the first time he served for the opening set, and again the first time he served for the next.
But Zverev simply kept missing the mark, even on neutral balls. Half of Carreno-Busta’s first 72 points came via unforced errors off Zverev’s racket. Eventually, though, things got more interesting, both because Zverev became a bit more aggressive and because he finally calibrated his shots correctly.
UNBELIEVABLE COMEBACK 🤯<a href=”https://twitter.com/AlexZverev?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@AlexZverev</a> rallies from two sets down to reach his first Grand Slam final. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/USOpen?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#USOpen</a> <a href=”https://t.co/uH7ZD57CWH”>pic.twitter.com/uH7ZD57CWH</a>
“I had to be more aggressive generally, I think,” Zverev said, “and it turned out well for me.”
After averaging 18 unforced errors over those first two sets, he averaged seven per set over the last three.
And he rode his booming serve to 24 aces.
Three breaks in a row — two by Zverev — swung the third set his way, and when he broke again to go up 2-1 in the fourth, he shook his right fist as he walked to the sideline.
Before the start of the fifth set, Carreno-Busta took a medical timeout and got his back worked on by a strainer, something he did at the same stage of his marathon quarterfinal victory over Denis Shapovalov.
This time, it was Zverev’s surge that continued, undeterred when Carreno-Busta twice hit balls right at him during points in the fourth set.
When it ended with one last break of serve, Zverev finally could allow himself a wide smile.