The Wunderkind: Is Zverev ready to take his game to another level?

by: Steve Tignor | January 12, 2018

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Zverev, who won ATP Masters 1000 titles in Montreal and Rome in 2017 , is widely considered to be the next big star in men’s tennis. (AP)

When 30-year-old German Mischa Zverev joined the ATP tour as a teenager, the professional tennis road became his younger brother’s home, too. A decade ago, Alexander—nicknamed Sascha—was already tagging along with, and hitting with, today’s top players.

“I’ve known Andy [Murray], since I was 4, 5 years old,” Sascha said. “I was pretty welcomed by those guys, by Novak [Djokovic], by other guys similar age.”

“Those guys” include Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. They’ve seen Zverev, tennis’ 20-year-old superstar-in-the-making, coming for a long time. As they watched him grow into his 6'6" frame, they’ve been quick to recognize how far he could go.

“He’s an amazing player; he has all the shots,” Nadal said last spring. “He has everything to become [a] big star.”

“I’m just really happy for him,” Federer said after Zverev beat him last August in Montreal. “To see that he’s taking everything not just to the next level, but the next two levels.”

By the ATP Finals, Zverev had taken his game to the top. After winning two Masters 1000 events, on clay and hard courts, he finished third in the tour’s Race to London—behind only Nadal and Federer.

There’s still one glaring omission in Zverev’s future-of-the-game résumé: he has yet to make it past the fourth round of a major. When he arrived at last year’s US Open, it appeared that his Grand Slam struggles would be a thing of the past. Titles in Washington, D.C., and Montreal had made him the trendy pick to win in Flushing Meadows. 

Instead, Zverev’s success inspired one of his old rivals, Borna Coric, to play the match of his life and beat him in the second round.

“It was upsetting. Today was upsetting. The way I played was upsetting,” Zverev said at the US Open. “I know I could have done some big things here. I know that I could have done something that I haven’t.”

This wasn’t the first time Zverev had ranted about missed opportunities. After squandering a lead in a five-set loss to Milos Raonic at Wimbledon, he said, “I feel like every set, except the fifth one, I should have won, should have won easier. I mean, it’s just frustrating.”

Zverev was right to rant. At this point, he has all the equipment needed to be the No. 1 many think he’ll become: the killer forehand, the bailout serve, the weaponized backhand. But he hasn’t always used this arsenal of shots with the ruthless efficiency of a Federer or Nadal. Zverev hasn’t, in short, always gone for the throat. He’s often content, against defensive opponents, to engage in long rallies rather than fi nd a way to deliver a knockout blow. 

While Zverev is following in the Big Four’s footsteps, he might also take a page from a player younger than him. Last summer, 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov made a splash with his daring and creative play in Montreal—where he lost to Zverev—and at the US Open. Instead of using his energy to work the ball around, the way so many players do now, Shapovalov used it in short, slashing bursts, to decide points on his own terms. It remains to be seen if Zverev can learn to play with that kind of decisiveness, or if he can learn to close out rallies, either at the net or with a putaway forehand, as soon as he has the advantage.

So far, there’s no cause for worry; Zverev isn’t the first great talent to stumble out of the gates at the Slams. Coming into 2018, his situation is comparable to the one Federer found himself at age 20, in 2002. That year Federer rose to No. 6 and won his fi rst Masters event; but he also lost in the first round at the French Open and Wimbledon. Many wondered, briefly, where his career was heading; when he won Wimbledon the following year, they stopped wondering.

After his loss at the US Open, Zverev said he was too angry to worry about how he was going to do the rest of the season. This was a good sign: he understands that, for a player of his caliber, the majors are what matter, and he’s not going to pretend otherwise.

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