Alexander Zverev: There is a reason (or 20) why he's the toast of the tennis world right now
Alexander Zverev won his first ATP title yesterday, which might be the start of many great things to come in his future.
If this were the 80s or 90s, we'd be reacting to yesterday's match at the St. Petersburg Open, where Stan Wawrinka suffered his first loss in a final since 2013, with a line going something like this:
Alexander Zverev: Remember the name.
But this is not the 80s or the 90s. In the social media age, every name has already been remembered and rehashed and relegated years before that first big breakthrough. Everything is old news, and no prodigy is ever actually that in the true sense of the word. Even a 19-year-old has been in our consciousness for so long that he starts looking like a veteran.
In that sense, Zverev's maiden ATP title doesn't quite feel like an epochal moment, even if the next decade goes on to make it so. If anything, this win seemed like a long time coming: his two finals loss earlier this year felt like aberrations.
Okay, maybe that is an exaggeration: he wasn't really expected to win the Nice final against Dominic Thiem. But his next final, against Florian Mayer in Halle, certainly seemed like a half-open door to trophy-land – especially since it came right after his thunderous performance to defeat Roger Federer on the Swiss maestro's favourite stomping ground (or one of a handful of stomping grounds, to be more precise).
Zverev this, Zverev that – it seems like the kid has been called a can't-miss prospect since the dawn of time. Even his nickname – Sascha – rolls off the tongue as easily as ‘Rafa’ or ‘Nole’ or ‘Vika'. Heck, some have even started referring to him exclusively by that name, just the way his elder brother (and fellow tennis pro) Mikhail is called ‘Mischa’.
Why have we been making such a big deal about him though? The entrenchment of nicknames for players has traditionally been the preserve of battle-hardened veterans rather than pimple-covered teenagers. What makes Sascha so special?
There's that backhand, for starters. I counted just one unforced error off that wing from the German in the third set yesterday, and it's not like he was just pushing the ball into the court. Wawrinka can hit the cover off the ball with his one-hander, as you've probably heard, but Zverev matched him swing for swing and angle for angle with his rock-solid yet power-packed two-hander. He may have been guilty of being a little too passive with it in some of the extended rallies, but when he did try to change the dynamic with an acute angle, or – far more devastatingly – a down-the-line bullet, even Wawrinka was left lunging in vain.
It says a lot about your natural talent when your down-the-line backhand is considered one of the best in the world before you've turned 20.
Zverev's height is an undeniable asset too. Standing 6'6” tall and with probably a year still left to keep growing, the German has joined the list of big men trying to break the ‘ideal height for tennis’ stereotype.
For a while now it's largely been accepted as canon that a height between 5’11” and 6'2” is best equipped to achieve tennis greatness. But the likes of Juan Martin del Potro, Marin Cilic and to an extent even Andy Murray (the Scot is listed as 6’3”) have threatened to convince us that tennis is getting taller just as rapidly as it is getting ‘older'.
And why shouldn't a greater height be desired, when it helps you hit a flatter first serve than normal, and belt down aces at will? While Zverev is no John Isner, he does make good use of his tall stature. He was a little off with his serve yesterday, winning less than 70% of his first serve points and getting broken thrice, but there have been days when it has looked nearly unbreakable. I have rarely seen Federer struggle to return serve as mightily as he did in that Halle semifinal, especially in the first set.
The less glamourous aspect of being taller than 6'5” tall is that, theoretically at least, it makes you inherently incapable of haring around the court in Djokovickian displays of devilry. But Zverev is no slouch along the baseline, and surprises us with his nimble footwork just as frequently as Cilic has done throughout his career. Is it more than mere coincidence that Zverev is the first teenager to win an ATP tournament since Cilic in 2008?
Admittedly, Zverev isn't quite the complete package yet. His forehand needs a little work; while the technique seems fine, and he can bring the heat on his crosscourt drives, the consistency is less than ideal – especially when he's forced to generate his own pace. Wawrinka figured that out mid-way through the second set yesterday, and he junk-balled his way to a 3-0 lead in the third. Zverev didn't seem to have a clue how to deal with the off-pace slice directed to his forehand, and that almost cost him the match.
The net skills aren't up to scratch either. That botched volley on match point against Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells in March this year is already the stuff of folklore, and yesterday too he alternated gasp-inspiring deft droppers with cringe-inducing stoned sitters. The commitment to get to the net is in place, the execution much less so.
In his short career so far, Zverev has compensated for his deficiencies with a trait that has nothing to do with technique, but is common to all great champions: mental toughness. Wawrinka is not a player known to give up a deciding-set lead easily, and when Zverev went down 0-3 in that third set the writing seemed to be on the wall. But while the German was helped a little by the Swiss’ inexplicable and sudden loss of intensity, the way he put his head down and ground his way to the win was a revelation.
The match against Nadal would have put Zverev on the map a lot quicker if he had managed to win it, but the fact that it ended in a loss may end up being more valuable in the long run. Matches like that have a way of lighting a fire under you that no amount of tehnical superiority or natural talent can buy. Zverev has gone from strength to strength since that disaster, and if it ends up being the beacon of inspiration that helps him keep his focus in tight matches in the future, he should probably send Nadal a thank-you gift basket for being the relentless warrior that he is.
Sure, there are still the occasional temper tantrums. Earlier this year he got into trouble for calling a chair umpire a “f@#%ing moron”, and yesterday he threatened to smash his racquet almost every time he missed a lollypop forehand. He's no Nick Kyrgios though, which should give us hope that sooner or later he'll attune himself to the Federer-Nadal template and become the gentlemanly champion that tennis has patented over the last couple of decades.
Long story short, Zverev seems to have all the ingredients for long-term domination of the men's tour, and it's not just idle gossip (the social media version of it, anyway) that has made people anoint him the brightest star of Generation Next. But there has been a bit of idle gossip. A stat has been doing the rounds since yesterday regarding Zverev's age: at 19 years 5 months, he's at exactly the same stage in his life as Federer was when he won his first ATP title (at the Milan indoor event back in 2001). Coincidence?
As much as Zverev's fans would like to believe otherwise, the answer to that is a definitive yes. Winning your first title at the same age as a 17-time Major champion does not mean you'll win 17 Slams too. And it certainly doesn't mean you're ‘The Next Federer’ or ‘Baby Federer’ or ‘GOAT in waiting’ or whatever colourful moniker that's been bestowed upon every remotely promising youngster in the last decade.
But there are other things – plenty of them – about Zverev that point to a stellar future. His already formidable game will probably get even more powerful as he moves into his 20s, and his movement will almost certainly become more efficient. Whether his hunger for success and ability to be composed in the face of setbacks remain sufficiently strong is a matter of pure conjecture, but those are variables that have been an inescapable part of every successful sporting career – and so should be kept aside for the moment.
It's never wise to make premature predictions, but I'm going to go out on a limb and predict a multiple-Slam-winning career for Zverev. Do I bristle at the prospect of ending up with egg on my face? Of course. But that's nothing compared to the joy I'd get if I (and a thousand others) turned out to be right, and Zverev made good on all his promise.
I won't ask anyone to remember his name, because that would be supremely pointless. But I am confident that we WILL remember his game, and this first brush with greatness.