Zverev, a 29-year-old German born in Moscow, ambushed Murray with spectacular net play, sky-hook overheads that fell near the line and stab volleys that just dipped over the net. In an era dominated by baseline rallies, Zverev disrupted Murray by coming to the net 118 times in the match, winning 65 of those points.
Zverev said his commitment to aggressive play kept nerves from sabotaging the moment.
“I was in a little coma, and just serve-and-volley-ing my way through it,” Zverev said in his on-court interview.
Murray said it was Zverev’s execution, not tactics, that proved his undoing, adding that his opponent “deserved to win.”
“I don’t think it’s so much someone necessarily coming in; it’s the shots he was coming up with when he did come forward,” Murray said. “I mean, he came up with some great pickups, you know, reflex volleys especially at the end of the match when it was tight. That was tough, because I was hitting some good shots, chasing some good balls down. Just wasn’t meant to be.”
Kerber’s destruction came in far different fashion, with Vandeweghe’s bludgeoning serve and ground strokes blasting through Kerber’s soft defenses. Vandeweghe hit 30 winners to Kerber’s seven. Many of Vandeweghe’s winners were struck close to the middle of the court after she had lured Kerber out of position with her previous shot.
“We’re two totally opposite players,” Vandeweghe, 25, said. “I would expect myself to have more winners as well as more unforced errors than she would have.”
Kerber had looked far from invincible to start the season, losing two of her three matches leading to this tournament, and then dropping sets in her first two rounds to opponents ranked outside the top 50.
“Of course, it was a little bit difficult at the beginning to get used to everything,” Kerber said of being the top seed at a major for the first time. “But when the tournament started, I was doing all the things like I did last year, was trying to do everything simple. Actually, I was feeling good. I have a good team around me, the same team like last year.”
Kerber’s loss put her No. 1 ranking, which she claimed during her run to the United States Open title in September, in jeopardy. Serena Williams can take the top ranking if she wins here to become the Australian Open champion for the seventh time.
Murray, who ascended to the No. 1 ranking for the first time in November and has held it since, finished the second half of last year as the sport’s most dominant player, reeling off titles at Wimbledon, the Olympics, Shanghai, Paris and the World Tour Finals. Asked if that heavy workload had worn on him, Murray said he would meditate on that.
“I was full of confidence coming into the beginning of this year,” he said. “I prepared as best as I could but maybe have to have a look back and assess some things and see maybe if there’s some stuff I could have done differently. Or did my opponent just play a great match? Sometimes that can happen, as well.”
Zverev played not only a great match but a daring one, risking exposure at the net by Murray, one of the game’s best when it comes to passing shots. “I can’t stay on the baseline, a couple feet behind the baseline, try to out-rally him,” Zverev said of Murray. “He’s very strong physically. He has a good baseline game. I knew I had to come in. That was my only chance to win. So, yeah, honestly, there was no Plan B for me, so that’s all I could do.”
Zverev’s net-rushing gambits can lead to reward but also embarrassment in this era of powerful baseliners. Zverev has been on the wrong end of lopsided defeats before: 6-0, 6-0 to Federer in 2013, and 6-1, 6-1 earlier this month to Nadal in Brisbane.
“I always say it takes longer to develop a serve-and-volley game because, I mean, eventually you’re going to get passed a lot,” Zverev said. “Especially when you’re younger and you play top guys. Like what happened to me two weeks ago in Brisbane against Rafa, he killed me, 1-1. I really felt like I had no chance.”
“I feel like if you’re younger and you feel something like that on the court, you get discouraged quite easily,” Zverev said. “You change to, Let’s stay on the baseline, let’s try to get somewhat of a rhythm going. I feel like it’s a very different mind-set you need to have as a serve-and-volleyer. You need to go to the net, get passed for two sets.”
But when the disruptive tactic works, success can come quickly. Zverev posted strong results last fall, reaching quarterfinals of two ATP events in China and then a semifinal in Basel, Switzerland, re-entering the top 100 for the first time since 2011.
Irina Zvereva, Mischa’s mother, taught her sons tennis with their father, Alexander Zverev Sr. She credited him with teaching Mischa how to volley, a strength of the senior Zverev’s own game when he was a Davis Cup player for the Soviet Union. She said that their fitness trainer Jez Green, who used to work with Murray, got Mischa into the best shape of his life.
“We want to say big thank you for this guy,” Ms. Zvereva said.
Zverev struggled with injuries for much of his career but was inspired to keep going by his younger brother, Alexander, a 19-year-old wunderkind whom many have pegged as a future No. 1. (Mischa watched his brother succumb to Nadal in a five-set third round match in Rod Laver Arena Saturday.)
Zverev spent some of his injured time coaching, traveling to far-flung Futures events. “Not the nicest places around the world,” he said.
Though not instant, Zverev’s rise back up the rankings has been meteoric. He was ranked as low as 1,067th in March 2015, and 171st a year ago.
“I realized, A, I missed playing myself, and B, I still felt like I could do some damage on court,” he said. “I felt like I was still pretty young, and I started missing tennis myself.”