The 'For Real' Question
“We just got a glimpse of the future,” the television commentator said as 18-year-old Alexander Zverev of Germany raised his arms on Thursday after his gritty, unlikely, three-set win over No. 3 seed Gilles Simon in Rotterdam.
Tennis fans in the U.S. may have been saying—or at least hoping—the same thing a few hours later, when 18-year-old Californian Taylor Fritz finished his own gritty, unlikely, two-tiebreaker win over No. 2 seed Steve Johnson in Memphis.
Today the tennis world raises its voice as one to ask: Are Fritz and Zverev “for real?" This is the question all fans struggle to answer when a new face strides onto the tennis stage.
In general, with the possible exception of a certain talkative young Australian, we want the answer to be “Yes!” There are few narratives more thrilling for the fan of any sport than watching a young talent scale its heights. In those rare moments, the seemingly impossible suddenly becomes real.
I can remember thinking, in the late 80s, “Monica Seles looks great, but she can’t actually stay on the court with Steffi Graf, can she?” I can remember thinking, at the French Open in 2005, “Rafael Nadal looks great, but he can't actually beat Roger Federer in a Grand Slam, can he?” We found out the answers from both of these teenagers—“Yes!”—soon enough. In that moment, you know you're about to start a long relationship with a new player.
As exciting as that realization can be, it’s also bittersweet. Even as we welcomed Seles and Nadal onto our TV screens, we also had to come to the startling realization that, no, Graf and Federer weren’t going to win everything forever. Part of us may have hoped that these super-players would never find their respective Kryptonites, and never be proved human. But for every young star who rises, another must be brought back to earth.
If you’ve only become a tennis fan within the last decade, this feeling—of upstarts arriving, champions aging, eras changing, time passing—may be a foreign one. This has been an age of agelessness on both tours. On the men’s side, no one under 28 has made himself a consistent Grand Slam contender or cracked the Top 5 for long. On the women’s side, nobody in this century has surpassed the soon-to-be-35-year-old Serena Williams.
There have been brilliant one-offs and intriguing upsets. Last year, for example, Belinda Bencic beat Serena in Toronto and Nick Kyrgios beat Federer in Madrid. And there have been sustained surges that seemed to promise much more. In 2015, Garbiñe Muguruza rose all the way to No. 3, while Milos Raonic started 2016 with a run to the Australian Open semifinals.
Yet this week, the oft-injured Raonic announced that he has pulled out of his next event, in Delray Beach, with a torn adductor muscle; has his wave already crested? At the same time, we learned that Juan Martin del Potro would be starting his latest comeback in Delray. Seven years ago, del Potro made it clear that he was for real when he beat Federer in the U.S. Open final. Now, at 27, after enduring multiple season-ending wrist injuries, his name recalls a tennis future that, sadly, never came to pass.
Which brings us back to our latest tennis futures, Zverev and Fritz. There are plenty of reasons to believe that both will be stars: At 18, they’re already beating quality opponents; they have the requisite height for today’s game (Fritz is 6’4”, while Zverev is 6’6” and appears to be a little taller every time he plays); and each has tennis in his genes—Fritz’s mother, Kathy May, was a pro, as is Zverev’s bother, Mischa. And each has a very different type of star quality. Watching them play now, it’s easy to imagine a transatlantic rivalry between the hot-tempered, long-haired, gold-chain-wearing German and the cool, classically coiffed Californian.
Of course, this being a European era in tennis, it’s easier to imagine the German making it to the top. The 70th-ranked Zverev is further along in his development than the 145th-ranked Fritz. Zverev appears to have learned a thing or two from the straight-set lesson that Andy Murray gave him in Australia last month. So far in Rotterdam, Zverev has stayed focused, and he showed a fierce persistence, as well as physical toughness, in coming back from 2-4 down in the third against Simon. Zverev also has all the tools: the bailout serve, the controlling forehand, and, best of all, a smooth two-handed backhand that he uses as a third weapon.
By comparison, while Fritz has an aggressive mindset and his shots have a natural pop, he doesn't move or hit as smoothly as Zverev; so far he looks a little less polished. But Fritz has also shown a fierce persistence—he saved nine of 11 break points against Johnson—as well as a level head. That alone can take a teenager far.
The next question will be: How far? Is it time to stop wondering if young players can win Grand Slams? Only one male under 24 has done it since del Potro in 2009, and that was Novak Djokovic. For a young player to be “for real” now, does that mean we must expect him to be the next Djokovic or Federer or Nadal? Or, for the time being, can we only hope that another Raonic or Kei Nishikori or Grigor Dimitrov comes along? Seven years ago in Rotterdam, I watched a teenage Dimitrov take a set from Nadal and thought that he was the logical heir to the Federer throne. Does that mean we should be careful not to read too much into what we see from Zverev on the same court this week?
Probably—but that won’t stop people from wondering and hoping. Even if Zverev and Fritz don’t turn out to be major champions, even if they’re set back by injuries or never crack the Big 4's code, they’ve still given us a new sense of possibility. On a slow week in February, there’s not much more a tennis fan can ask.