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 _ then 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.
“Mentally, I stayed in it. … A lot of players would have gone away,” Zverev said. “There’s no easy matches anymore. Sometimes you have to dig deep. Today I dug deep, dug very deep.”
Thiem, a 27-year-old from Austria, won a far more entertaining match Friday night, holding off 2019 U.S. Open runner-up Daniil Medvedev 6-2, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5). Medvedev held a set point in both the second and third, but Thiem hung in there both times and now will try to improve his 0-3 record in Grand Slam finals. He has lost to Rafael Nadal at the French Open the past two years and to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open this February.
The No. 3-seeded Medvedev hadn’t dropped a set all tournament until facing Thiem. He’d been broken just three times, a total Thiem matched by Friday’s second set.
In an interlude redolent of his heel turn at Flushing Meadows a year ago, Medvedev got into it with chair umpire Damien Dumusois — yes, the very same official who cited him for yanking a towel from a ballperson in 2019, prompting boos from fans and some egging on from the Russian — and Grand Slam supervisor Wayne McKewen in the first set.
This time, the starting point was a dispute with Dumusois over whether Medvedev challenged a call in time. Medvedev walked around the net to take a closer look at the mark and was called for a code violation, so he started chirping at the chair umpire, saying “Why, because you’re not smart?” at one point, and “U.S. Open is a joke, right?” at another.
Then, turning his attention to McKewen, who was at courtside, and smothering his words with sarcasm, Medvedev said: “Sorry, I think I killed someone, right? Sorry, I was so bad to cross the net. Sorry. My apologies. My sincere apologies to the U.S. Open for crossing the net. Oh, my God.”
Thiem led 4-2 there and raced through that set. Medvedev went up an early break in the second and was two points from taking it while ahead 5-3 and Thiem serving at love-30, but couldn’t came through. Medvedev then held a set point at 6-5 in the tiebreaker and faltered again, even though Thiem felt something in his right heel while chasing a drop shot.
Thiem began limping and wincing and was worked on by a trainer before the third set. His team also sent him some fresh shoes, but after he slipped behind the baseline on one point, Thiem shouted in German, clearly miffed. After the match, Thiem said he was pain-free.
Medvedev served for the third set at 5-3, and was a point from claiming it at 40-30 but framed a forehand and never got that close again. A little more than 20 minutes later, Thiem finished off the straight-set win.
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.
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. zfy
Nadal chose not to try to defend his title in New York because of the coronavirus pandemic; Federer is out for the rest of 2020 after two knee operations; Djokovic’s tournament ended at 6-5 in the first set of his fourth-round match against Carreno Busta when the No. 1 seed and title favorite unintentionally hit a line judge in the throat with a ball after getting broken.
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-meter) 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.
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.
“A big opportunity,” Carreno Busta called it.
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.
“I had to be more aggressive generally, I think,” Zverev said, “and it turned out well for me.”
After totaling 25 winners and 36 unforced errors over those first two sets, he had 46 winners and just 21 unforced errors over the last three.
And he rode his booming serve to 24 aces.
“I started taking the ball much earlier. I started taking the ball more on the rise. I started giving myself the chance to be the one that is aggressive,” Zverev explained. “I think in the first few sets, Pablo was the one dictating much more than I did. This is how the match slowly turned around.”
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 throw his head back and allow himself a wide smile.
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