Second seeds are supposed to feast on easy prey in the first round of tournaments. But easy doesn’t describe Alexander Zverev, the best young prospect in the world, just a few days removed from an ATP title. (And just a few weeks removed from a five-set test of Rafael Nadal’s mettle in the third round of the Australian Open.) But it was Zverev that two-seed Dominic Thiem drew at the start of the Rotterdam Open, and he handled the brutal pairing better than expected. Setting seedings aside, I would have picked Zverev here, but Thiem shook off his slow start to the year to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Thiem, at age 23 and world rank No. 8, is by any objective measure one of the most promising players of the post-Big Four generation. But you can understand why there was way more buzz around the 19-year-old across the net. Thiem doesn’t scream “economy of movement,” leaping and torquing his whole body into each routine groundstroke. (His overstuffed tour schedule does him no favors, either.) And for all the work Thiem puts into each stroke, his shots in this match tended to follow a conservative, mild pattern of play: landing around center of the court at about three-quarters depth. He’d surprise with the occasionally down-the-line gem on his one-handed backhand, but you begin to wonder whether he can muster the precision to go for the lines, and spare himself the exhaustion of long rallies. His pace and spin, though keen, aren’t themselves sufficient to tease out errors, in the Nadal style.
Zverev, though, always startles me with the accuracy and depth of his striking, especially on his backhand side, which has become one of my favorites on tour. Though looked the better player through the first set and much of the second, but began to falter, especially in his net approaches He failed to scrape up short balls aimed at his feet—smart of Thiem to send a 6-foot-6 foe stooping for them—and went limp-wristed on volleys. For one of his go-to finishers, he’d send a ball very deep to Thiem’s backhand and creep up the court; Thiem would reliably chip a weak ball over the center of the net, and as his focus lapsed, Zverev couldn’t put it away. He won 15 of 25 net points in the match, despite coming in on generally strong approach shots.
After an exhausting rally that cost him the second set, Zverev sent this ball kid fleeing:
In the third set, Thiem broke early, staved off Zverev’s break in reply, and began to out hit Zverev from the baseline in the last few games as both players ramped up their aggression. Beating this surging upstart must shore up the confidence of Thiem, who so far this year has sustained losses to Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin—two players who may well pass him up in the rankings soon—and two far lower-ranked players. As for Zverev, who already notched a 2017 title last week at Montpellier, he’ll find another racket and a smoother draw soon enough.