The Paradoxical Serving of Alexander Zverev

Alexander Zverev has made the US Open 2020 Finals. Here, we take a look back at his serving performances and how it is different from what we would expect.

At 23 years of age, Alexander Zverev is now the youngest Grand Slam finalist since Andy Murray made the final in the 2008 US Open. Zverev has always been earmarked as one to watch out for. He has beaten both Federer and Djokovic in a Masters final and has already won 4 big titles in his young career, only behind the Big 4 quartet amongst active players.

However, it might not be representative of his actual level in this tournament; Zverev hasn’t faced a top 25 player in the six matches that he has played so far. His matches in the quarterfinal against Borna Coric and his semifinal against Pablo Carreño Busta were not high-quality affairs. After Novak Djokovic’s disqualification in the Fourth Round and Stefanos Tsitsipas’s loss from 6 match points up to Borna Coric, the pressure was on Zverev to make the final from the top half of the draw. He has made the final, but he has played with the weight of the whole world on his shoulder.

It has long been known that if Zverev’s serve flows well, his entire game then naturally flows from it. In the Australian Open earlier this year, Zverev made 71% first serves in his matches and averaged only three double faults per match and just over one double fault per set. In this US Open, he has made 66% first serves and averages eight double faults per match and only over two double faults per set.

I would focus here on his last two matches. First, against Coric, Zverev played an atrocious first set. He was a break down in the second set but toughened up, broke back, and then took the tiebreaker when Coric made a string of errors. In the third set, he again somehow held his serve in the crucial moments and once again won the tiebreaker with more solid play and then took the 4th set to take a tense, nervous match.

Zverev made 12 double faults in the match. All tennis players hit their second serve slower than their first serve; it simply gives them more control over their serve and allows them to keep the serve in and then play the ensuing point. Zverev is different in that respect. Against Coric, his average second serve speed increased every set. In the 3rd set, he averaged 110MPH on the 2nd serve compared to 88MPH in the 1st set.

You would expect that with an increase in speed on the 2nd serve, we would see more double faults. Yet, despite having six service games in the 3rd set compared to only three service games in the 1st set, Zverev served fewer double faults in the 3rd set than in the 1st set. Against Carreño Busta in the 5th set, Zverev averaged an astonishing 122MPH on his second serve. He served only one double fault throughout the set.

With his high ball toss, Zverev is better equipped to hit faster and more powerful serves. It’s clear that the slower he hits his 2nd serve, the more chances that he will hit a double fault. As good as Zverev’s first serve is, when he faces a top player, he will have to rely on his second serve as the match progresses. Right now, his second serve is anything but reliable.

He has taken an approach in recent times to hit two big serves rather than a slow 2nd serve. Zverev still doesn’t have a kick serve, and when he tries to hit a slice 2nd serve, invariably, he has been putting a little too much work on it, and it’s hitting the net. He has still not got that variation in his serves that he needs against the top players. Two big serves are not sustainable at the top level in big matches.

Next: US Open Final is a make-or-break moment for Dominic Thiem's career

His opponent in the US Open Final is his friend Dominic Thiem. Thiem is a deep-standing returner, and the way how he returned Daniil Medvedev’s first serves will inspire confidence in his coaching staff. Alexander Zverev has a challenging task in front of him. He will have to play his very best tennis to nick out a win, and even that might not be enough against the fearsome might of Dominic Thiem.