The true testament of character came after the sudden onslaught. At 1am during another late-night tussle on the Rod Laver Arena, Alexander Zverev should have been back in the locker room, safely into the semi-finals. The most glaring of opportunities – 5-2 up, a break of serve up, two points from victory twice – came and went in the third set against Wimbledon champion Carlos Alcaraz.
But despite blood blisters and movement issues, Zverev regrouped and recomposed to seal a four-set win, 6-1 6-3 6-7(2) 6-4, and the best grand slam victory of his career. Tantalisingly, it sets up a final-four showdown with nemesis Daniil Medvedev on Friday. The Netflix producers, who centred an entire episode of the new Break Point series on the pair’s rivalry, will be salivating at the matchup.
Deep into Wednesday night in Melbourne – past 10pm, when will they ever get the schedule right? – was when we were treated to the match of the day. World No 2 Alcaraz was the favourite against Zverev, who was coming into this one off the back of a four-hour-plus victory over Cameron Norrie in the last-16. Alcaraz, meanwhile, had dropped one set all tournament.
But from the get-go, it was Zverev who grasped the initiative. Firing first serves down with impressive regularity and striding forward off both wings with aggressive tennis down the line, the German did not give Alcaraz a sniff. On the contrary, the Spaniard seemed devoid of energy in the first hour or so: inconsistent, peculiar in his decision-making and, most of all, erratic. So very erratic. All in all, it was very un-Alcaraz-like.
The first set swept by in just 29 minutes via a 6-1 scoreline in Zverev’s favour. The sixth seed’s first serve percentage was in the gods at 89 per cent – it would drop by just 4 per cent in the entire match.
The second set was similarly business-like from Zverev. Amid agitation from Alcaraz’s side of the net, alongside a crowd clearly rooting for the showman Spaniard, Zverev was in a place where all athletes feel solely in tune with their game: the zone.
Ignoring the outside noise has been a common feature of Zverev’s run over the past 11 days at Melbourne Park. The 26-year-old has faced plenty of off-court questions regarding his forthcoming domestic abuse trial – he denies the allegations – as well as on-court internal wrestling, given his long injury lay-off after sustaining severe ligament damage in his right ankle following a horrific injury at the 2022 French Open. But just when it mattered most here, he was executing one of the performances of the tournament. By the end of the second set, he had hit just nine unforced errors in the entire match.
And it should have been done and dusted in straight sets. Alcaraz looked forlorn of ideas at 5-2 down in the third, even arching over towards the ground at one point. But, in a flash, the mesmeric 20-year-old created something out of nothing. Suddenly, he was sprinting around the court with a newfound energy. He was launching into his forehand, no holds barred, laying it all on the line.
And by the time he’d recovered and stretched the set to a tie-break, he was on an absolute roll: a series of forehand passing shots keeping the crowd awake as Wednesday progressed to Thursday. Alcaraz won the set, amid a rapturous atmosphere under the Melbourne lights. And it was game on.
But Zverev stayed in the moment. He took a medical timeout: to treat his blisters and, undoubtedly, to halt Alcaraz’s momentum. The level from both players peaked in the fourth set but, at crunch time, Zverev came up with the goods on the front foot. His backhand – his best shot – was too much for even Alcaraz to handle. Asked to serve it out again, Zverev didn’t falter this time and as Alcaraz went long on return, the German raised his arms in victory.
Yet he does not want to stop here. “He’s been kicking my ass a lot in the last year or so,” Zverev said of Medvedev. “Maybe this will be the place.” It was a statement win from the sixth seed, dumping Alcaraz out of the first major of the year. And much like Jannik Sinner in the other semi-final when he takes on Novak Djokovic, he will be the underdog on paper against Medvedev.
But for both men, chasing their first grand slam and playing terrific tennis, it feels as though they will not get a better chance to break their duck.
Yastremska looks to emulate Raducanu
Zverev will take on third seed Medvedev after the Russian beat Polish star Hubert Hurkacz in five titanic sets, 7-6(4) 2-6 6-3 5-7 6-4, to reach the last four.
In the women’s singles, Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska is close to emulating Emma Raducanu after beating Czech teenager Linda Noskov in straight sets.
Raducanu won the 2021 US Open by winning 10 matches through qualifying and the main draw; Yastremska is now just two matches away from doing the same.
She will face 12th seed Qinwen Zheng of China after she beat the unseeded Anna Kalinskaya in the first night match of the day in three sets.
It is women’s semi-finals day on Thursday, with both matches taking place in the night session.
First up is a rematch of the US Open final, with defending champion Aryna Sabalenka hoping to turn the tables on Coco Gauff, before Yastremska plays Zheng.
British wheelchair stars Alfie Hewett and Gordon Reid are in singles and doubles semi-final action, while Mingge Xu plays her girls’ singles quarter-final against Iva Ivanova.