Bring back Rafa. Bring back Roger. Hey, bring back Novak. Good luck to Alexander Zverev but, on the evidence of a wretched but oddly compelling semi-final, if he were to win this star-stripped 2020 US Open on Sunday, it would surely come with the dreaded asterisk.
The German is in the final of a grand slam after years of unfulfilled promise, coming from two sets down for the first time to beat the 29-year-old Spaniard, Pablo Carreño Busta, who is world-ranked 27 but seeded 20 because his venerable compatriot and Nadal’s ageless Swiss rival headed a long list of absentees.
Also gone after his fourth-round meltdown in his match against Carreño Busta was the world No 1, Novak Djokovic, watching from Rome, where he will warm up for the French Open.
Instead it is Zverev through to a first US Open final and a date with world No 3 Dominic Thiem, who won 6-2, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5) over Daniil Medvedev in Friday’s second and more straightforward semi-final.
If Arthur Ashe Stadium, the biggest arena in tennis, were holding anywhere near its capacity, 23,500 possibly well-oiled New Yorkers would have been screaming for their money back after watching 23 breaks of service and a total of 100 unforced errors over three hours and 22 minutes. Zverev hit 57 of those – along with 24 aces among 71 clean winners – to win 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.
They were like two strangers thrown out of a rough party on the wrong side of town. Neither knew the way home.
“Down two sets to love, I couldn’t believe it,” Zverev said courtside. “I was supposed to be the favourite. I knew I had to come up with better tennis. But I’m through to my first grand slam final and that’s all that matters. Still one to go for me. I wasn’t winning many second serve points and had to be more aggressive. Can’t wait for the final.
“At 3-6, 0-5, I was looking at the scoreboard, I thought I’ve got to do something. I’m lucky to be through. I feel OK, been working with Jez Green [Andy Murray’s former conditioner] the past couple of years and he’s done quite a good job with me.”
It improved as they warmed up. But so does sour milk when churned it into cheese. It was a strong candidate for bust of the fortnight.
It says a lot that Carreño Busta was the highest-ranked player Zverev had faced in the tournament. Coronavirus, a slew of refuseniks and a couple of upsets had shredded the draw to the level of an ATP 500, maybe a mid-level Masters, and they played down to it.
The early exchanges were short, nervous and tough to watch. Both were as tight as a drum. Carreño Busta broke Zverev’s big, wayward serve twice, handed back a break then hung on to go a set up after 40 minutes.
Moving as if someone had filled his shoes with glue, Zverev put one serve in the first game of the second set mid-box on the wrong side of the court. “This is a horror show,” said Tim Henman (hardly alone in having picked the fifth seed to win), as Carreño Busta mugged the under-done Zverev and went two sets up in an hour and 25 minutes.
Zverev did not exactly storm back in the third, but his vulnerable second serve went up from 16% in the second set to 78, with no double faults and just three unforced errors, as he scrapped hard to stay in the fight. Now it was Carreño Busta’s turn to sweat.
Zverev grabbed an early break in the fourth, and threw it away with the worst double fault of... well, the season, the ball dribbling over the net into the wrong box again.
He strung together some big serves and booming forehands to level at a set apiece after two hours – although he had to wear an 87mph rib-cruncher in the ninth game that actually fell back over the net, and they went to a one-set shootout.
It seemed inconceivable they would not lift their game with the prize in sight. They did. A little. Zverev broke early, and hung on. Carreño Busta saved a match point at 3-5, and gave it straight back then dumped a limp backhand. It was as prosaic as that. The tension had long gone. For most of the match, unpredictability was all this forgettable semi-final had going for it. In they end, they couldn’t even get that right.