(Photo credit: REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi)
Alexander Zverev, suddenly a dark horse for the French Open crowd after back-to-back triumphs in Munich and Madrid will look to continue his great form when he takes on Croatia’s Marin Cilic, making his debut in a clay court Masters 1000 semifinal. Zverev, of course, won his first Masters 1000 title here last year, defeating Novak Djokovic in straight sets and the German is no doubt desperate to defend his title. But who will reach the final?
Zverev leads their head-to-head four matches to one. But it was the Croatian who was the victor in their first match, a hard-fought quarterfinal three years ago at the Washington Open, with the final score 7-6 7-5 in Cilic’s favour. Zverev then defeated Cilic in Montpellier in the second round, in another close match in which both sets went to tiebreaks. Zverev then scored a second win against Cilic in Shanghai where he won from a set behind 3-6 6-3 6-2.
He was again able to recover from a set behind in their only previous clay court match which was contested in Madrid last year. Cilic took the first in a tiebreak, but thereafter Zverev managed to take the upper hand, advancing to the third round with a 6-7 6-3 6-4 win. Their most recent match was in London last year at the ATP Finals at the O2 Arena. It was yet another close contest, with Zverev edging it in three, 6-4 3-6 6-4.
Path to the semifinals
Zverev began his Italian Open campaign in the second round against the 22-year-old Italian wildcard Matteo Berrettini who had impressively defeated Frances Tiafoe in the first round. But Zverev ultimately had too much quality for him, and it was the German who advanced 7-5 6-2. He then narrowly defeated Kyle Edmund in the second round 7-5 7-6 despite squandering eight match points. Zverev next accounted for the ninth seed David Goffin in a late night thriller, 6-4 3-6 6-3.
Cilic, who also received a first round bye, escaped a first round upset despite dropping the opening set against American Ryan Harrison, eventually recovering to win 6-7 6-1 7-6 Frenchman Benoit Paire was then comfortably defeated 6-3 6-4, a disappointment for the Frenchman who had impressed in defeating Gasquet and Schwartzman. Cilic then delivered a clinical performance to oust the tenth seeded Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta.
How do they match up?
Both men are powerful baseliners, standing six-and-a-half feet tall. Zverev pummels every ball he can, particularly with his excellent two-handed backhand, which though perhaps still behind Djokovic, Murray and Nishikori in overall quality, is struck with considerable venom. The German’s forehand is not quite so steady, but when he is hitting it with confidence it is a real weapon. His serve is also generally effective, particularly the first, which delivers a fair share of aces for Zverev.
Cilic provides a slightly more languid style of play than the younger man. Despite his imposing size, the Croatian looks surprisingly light on his feet. His groundstrokes also look like they rely more on Cilic’s timing than his brawn, though he no doubt throws plenty of that behind his shots as well. His inside out forehand is perhaps his best shot, and he also possesses a terrific serve, influenced by his former coach Goran Ivanisevic, who was surely one of the greatest servers of all time.
Zverev is on a winning roll. He is finding a way to get across the line even when the going gets tough, impressively recovering, for example, from going a break down in the decider against Goffin. Cilic’s season hasn’t really taken off since his Australian Open final defeat. The Croatian is without a title yet this year, and he has won just 15 matches, compared with Zverev’s 26. And clay is far from his favourite surface. Expect Zverev to reach the final in straight sets.