The first steps before a big performance are always the hardest. Uncertainty and nervousness are immense as soon as tennis professionals compete in their first-round match at the four most important tournaments in the world. Everyone wonders whether they can call up their performance from training in the match or even increase it, what wind and weather will be like and how the audience and opponents on the other side will be like. In addition to all the usual questions that a player asks himself before the first emergency, Alexander Zverev has added another one in Paris: How would he feel if he stepped back onto the floor of Roland Garros one year after his fatal twist of his ankle in the semifinals against Rafael Nadal and the subsequent month-long injury break?
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Muffensausen or winning a match, that was the question on Tuesday. After 2:43 hours of play, the answer was: both. In the first round of the French Open against South African Lloyd Harris, Zverev showed a performance that is about as far away from his sovereignty of earlier days as - geographically speaking - his birthplace Hamburg is from his home in Monaco. But he managed to turn a bad match around for the better. Mainly thanks to his serve, with which he saved himself from many tricky situations. And a certain coolness when he was behind and things got dicey. Otherwise, the 7: 6 (8: 6), 7: 6 (7: 0), 6: 1 victory against Harris was a match that the 26-year-old should forget until his second-round match against Slovakian Alex Molcan on Thursday.
The fact that the Olympic champion was allowed to take the first steps of his Paris comeback on the Simonne-Mathieu court was a gentle approach to the Philippe-Chatrier court, where the accident happened a year ago - and where Zverev would like to be in the semifinals or final again. The fact that this requires enormous playful progress is also clear to Zverev, who is mostly convinced of himself. When asked if he was happy with the match, he replied: "No. But I'm happy to have won in three sets."
An allusion to the fact that he had often tortured himself and his fans over five sets in previous opening matches. In the former greenhouse, which was converted into a tennis stadium a few years ago, Zverev only made one slip in the second service game: harmless especially compared to what he experienced a year earlier in the semifinals, but somehow symptomatic of his shaky performance. Strokes like over there were mistakes after mistakes, neither the world number 28. from Germany, the South African, who had slipped to position 294, was able to seize the game. The external conditions played a role, Zverev said afterwards. Yes, it was windy.
At least when he got into trouble, Zverev hinted at his class. He was able to fend off seven out of eight breakballs, and he also freed himself from other delicate situations, as he did when the score was 4: 5, when he fended off two break chances in a row. When he was in front, things looked different. In the first tie-break he missed two chances before he prevailed, in the second set he served with a 6: 5 lead to win the set and failed. Immediately afterwards, Harris again achieved the remarkable feat of taking the level of play to completely new depths: His mistakes gave Zverev a 7-0 tie-break. When the South African Harris had his left calf treated before the third set, it was clear that the course of the game would not change direction. The victory confirmed Zverev's mood.
In the days before the match, the 26-year-old had shown himself to be emphatically relaxed. Since he returned to the professional tour at the beginning of the year, the French Open has been the tournament "I'm looking forward to the most". Not only does he enjoy competing in Paris without pain and worry, but he also enjoys attracting less attention. Unlike in the past, this time he is not perceived as a co-favorite. What the Hamburg native draws his current optimism from was not apparent from the stands on Tuesday. Surely it is his fitness, possibly also the peace and quiet with which trainer father Alexander Zverev senior sat in the sun all the time.
On the other hand, the one who recently outstripped Zverev as the best-placed German tennis professional left his best form at the peak of the clay court season. "The fact that it happens at the French Open that I don't play so well is annoying," said Jan-Lennard Struff after the first-round defeat on Monday evening against the Czech Jiri Lehecka. The Warsteiner had reached the quarter-finals at the Masters tournament in Monte Carlo, and even the final at the equally high-class tournament in Madrid. "The season I've been playing so far isn't going to get any worse from the result here," Struff said. Now he is "up for Wimbledon and the German grass tournaments in Stuttgart and Halle."
His Davis Cup colleague Zverev, on the other hand, can continue to prove himself on the sand of Paris. A prognosis as to how long this will be is out of the question for the time being.