MELBOURNE, Australia — Alexander Zverev began 2020 with three consecutive losses, which meant he had plenty of problems — and plenty of time on his hands ahead of the Australian Open.
So he showed up early and got to work, spending up to seven hours a day practicing in the week before the decade’s first Grand Slam tournament.
That extra time paid off. And how.
Zverev, a 22-year-old from Germany, reached his first major semifinal by overcoming a terrible start Wednesday at Melbourne Park and putting together a 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 victory over three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka.
“I hope,” Zverev said, “this will be the first of many.”
After ceding the opening set in 24 minutes, Zverev regrouped and recalibrated his strategy, using all of his 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) frame to get to balls along the baseline and stretch points until Wawrinka faltered. It worked. Zverev’s sometimes-shaky serve — he was double-faulting once per game while losing all of his matches at the season-opening ATP Cup — was suddenly terrific, and Wawrinka’s barrel-chested baseline bashing weakened, as if he might be injured.
How bad were things earlier in January for Zverev?
“I’ve been struggling with my forehand, my backhand, my volleys, my drop shot, my return. My waking up in the morning. My everything,” he joked Wednesday. “It was not only my serve.”
Zverev also was self-deprecating before his first-round match last week, saying that he knew he couldn’t win the championship. After his opening victory, he pledged to donate all of the champion’s prize money, a little more than 4 million Australian dollars – about $2.85 million – to relief efforts for the wildfires raging around the country if he were to go all the way.
Just two matches to go now.
Wawrinka’s backhand is a one-handed tour de force that is not only his signature stroke but is among the most respected and feared shots in all of men’s tennis. But it let him down on this day: He finished with five winners and 31 errors on that side, 18 unforced and 13 forced.
It all added up to Zverev getting to the final four at a major in his 19th appearance. He had been 0-2 in quarterfinals.
“I’ve done well in other tournaments … but I never could break that barrier in a Grand Slam,” he said.
On Friday, Zverev will take on No. 1 Rafael Nadal or No. 5 Dominic Thiem for a berth in the final. Nadal vs. Thiem was scheduled for Wednesday night local time. The other men’s semifinal is Thursday, with defending champion Novak Djokovic facing 20-time major title winner Roger Federer for the 50th time.
Both women’s semifinals are Thursday: No. 1 Ash Barty of Australia vs. No. 14 Sofia Kenin of the United States, and No. 4 Simona Halep vs. unseeded Garbiñe Muguruza.
None has won the Australian Open; Halep was the runner-up in 2018.
Halep and Muguruza — both two-time major champs, both former No. 1s — advanced Wednesday with straight-set victories. Halep, who has yet to drop a set, required 53 minutes to dismiss No. 28 Anett Kontaveit 6-1, 6-1, before Muguruza eliminated No. 30 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 7-5, 6-3.
“Perfection doesn’t exist,” Halep said, “but I’m very happy with the way I played. I felt great on court. I was moving great.”
Zverev and Wawrinka, a dozen years older at 34, played on the steamiest afternoon of the tournament so far, with the temperature in the mid-80s Fahrenheit (about 30 Celsius) and no breeze to speak of.
Wawrinka had a far tougher trek to the quarterfinals, with a pair of five-set wins along the way — including over No. 4 Daniil Medvedev, the 2019 U.S. Open runner-up, in his previous outing — while Zverev hadn’t dropped a set.
Yet it took merely 16 minutes for Wawrinka to move out to a 5-0 lead by grabbing 20 of the match’s first 26 points, helped immensely by Zverev’s issues controlling the ball: He accumulated nine unforced errors and just one winner in that span.
Soon enough that set was done.
“I was getting ready to (explain) to the press why I lost in straight sets, to be honest,” Zverev said.
But Zverev changed tactics and made things competitive in the second set, thanks in part to getting into a real groove while serving, taking all 20 points in those games.
That allowed him to play more freely in his return games and he broke to go up 5-3 when Wawrinka shanked a backhand on one point, then netted a forehand on the next. Zverev shook his right fist and bellowed, “Come ooooooooon!”
One more hold at love later, he evened things at a set apiece.
Right then, suddenly if briefly, the quality of play devolved significantly at both ends of the court. Breaks were traded to open the third set as 10 of its initial 13 points came via unforced errors by one man or the other.
Soon, though, Zverev was straightened out for good, while Wawrinka had more and more struggles.
A backhand into the net gave Zverev the only other break he needed to collect that set. A backhand long let Zverev break for 1-0 in the fourth, and another backhand into the net put Zverev up a double break at 3-0.
Notice a pattern?