Crunch time roared to life with Alexander Zverev serving at break point at 1-2 in the third set of the Mutua Madrid Open final against Matteo Berrettini on Sunday. The match was two hours and 11 minutes old and everything that came before this moment was simply the prelude.

In a pivotal two-game sequence at 1-2 in the third set, Zverev initially imploded with two double faults and he strategically struggled figuring out what to do with Berrettini’s wicked crosscourt backhand slice. But from break point down at 1-2, 40/Ad, Zverev won seven of the next eight points to suddenly find himself up a break at 3-2 in the decider. He was not threatened again, pulling away for a 6-7(8), 6-4, 6-3 victory to claim his second Madrid title.

A key to Zverev’s impressive turnaround early in the third set was how he tactically adjusted to Berrettini’s slice backhand, intelligently countering with his feet more than his racquet. Overall, Berrettini hit 210 forehands from the back of the court and just 127 backhands, with many of them struck with severe backspin, crossing the net like a frozen rope. They bounced low, staying below Zverev’s strike zone, making them almost impossible to attack. Berrettini loves this backhand slice, as his opponent typically has to play defence off of it, and the slower ball that returns allows him ample time to feast on run-around forehands in the Ad court. 

With Zverev serving at 1-2, 40/30, Berrettini hit one of his signature laser-beam backspin crosscourt backhands that Zverev boldly tried to attack with an inside-in forehand down the line. The heavy backspin dragged his low, offensive forehand straight into the net. It was a risky play for Zverev that didn’t pay off, also giving Berrettini confidence that this specific shot would be a valuable asset as he tried to close out the match.

Berrettini went to the backhand slice a few points later with Zverev serving at Ad/40. The German saw it coming early and quickly moved forward in the Ad court to make sure that it would not get too low on him again. The pressure of moving forward also served to shrink the target area for Berrettini. If the backhand landed short, Zverev would already be there for it. The Italian was forced to try to attempt to hit it deeper, pressuring the error in the net.

This same dynamic happened on the very next point, which was the opening point of Berrettini’s service game at 2-2. Zverev saw the backhand slice coming and quickly scurried forward towards the baseline to make sure it would not get too low. Berrettini saw Zverev improve his court position and changed direction down the line at the last minute and missed it badly in the alley.

It was the kind of miss that shakes your confidence. It’s amazing to think Zverev took away a strength of Berrettini’s game by simply improving his court position, moving closer to the baseline.

Berrettini went to his lethal slice again at 15/15, and Zverev quickly moved forward to take it early, this time hitting a high percentage forehand approach back behind Berrettini to the Italian’s backhand. The ensuing lob from the eighth seed went long. With the backhand slice quickly moving from an asset to a liability in this critical juncture of the match, Berrettini then tried to do more with his forehand and two wild errors followed on the next two points to gift the break.

Berrettini struck a lonely pose post-match as he sat on his chair shaking his head wondering how he got so close to victory but couldn’t finish. You can give all the credit to Zverev and his awareness to counter the backhand slice by moving up inside the baseline to take the low ball as high as possible before it became unplayable.

Victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat by Zverev’s court position and tactical counter-moves as much as anything else.