Defending D.C. champ Alexander Zverev must turn a corner this summer

by: Steve Flink | July 31, 2018

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Alexander Zverev wins the 2017 Citi Open:

The youngest man currently in the ATP Top 10, by far, is Alexander “Sascha” Zverev. The 21-year-old defending champion at this week’s Citi Open in Washington D.C. resides at No. 3 in the world. He is a great player with a growing awareness of who he is and what he could accomplish. He can play magnificent tennis on any surface, cut down adversaries with a first serve that is one of the best in the sport, and set himself apart with a two-handed backhand that is both potent and precise. That shot is, in my view, the finest in tennis with the exception of Novak Djokovic’s two-hander. To be sure, this immensely determined young man will sooner or later become the greatest player in the game of tennis.

But as the enigmatic Zverev heads into the heart of summer, he has not yet demonstrated a propensity to sustain his excellence the way his boosters believe he should. He has fallen into slumps that are somewhat inexplicable for a player of his capabilities. Yet he moves through golden stretches when his game flows freely, his mind is uncluttered and his court sense falls neatly into place. At times like that, Zverev looks decidedly older and more mature than his years, signaling that he might be ready to soon step up and challenge the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic for world supremacy, displaying qualities as a competitor that we only associate with great champions.

Such a time was the summer of 2017. Zverev came to the Citi Open then and was nearly upended in the first round by world No. 75 Jordan Thompson, but survived that harrowing skirmish in a third set tie-break. Thereafter, he found his groove off the ground and was unstoppable, defeating Tennys Sandgren, Daniil Medvedev, Kei Nishikori and Kevin Anderson without the loss of a set as he captured that ATP 500 title.

On to Canada went Zverev after that triumphant run, and once more he was in a precarious corner at the start of the tournament. Facing the gifted Frenchman Richard Gasquet in the second round (after a bye), Zverev was on the brink of defeat. He saved three match points before salvaging that contest in a final set tie-break.

After that sedulous stand, Zverev defeated Nick Kyrgios, Anderson, Denis Shapovalov and Roger Federer to garner his second Masters 1000 tournament victory of the season, following up ably on his triumph a few months earlier in Rome—where he halted a jittery Djokovic in that Masters 1000 final. He was establishing himself increasingly as a front-line player, a threat to everyone in the sport’s upper echelons, and a viable contender at the 2017 U.S. Open.

Zverev—competing for the third week in succession—was understandably beaten by Frances Tiafoe in his first contest at Cincinnati. The fact remained, however, that an awful lot of authorities thought Zverev might be poised for a career defining moment. Experts from every corner of the globe thought Zverev was ready to win his first major title at the US Open. Zverev himself embraced the challenge of a transformative experience in New York.

“I feel very confident how I am playing right now," Zverev said after his loss to Tiafoe. "And I think going into the US Open, I feel the best I have ever felt maybe going into a Slam. That gives me a lot of confidence, and hopefully I can show that on court as well.”

Alexander Zverev wins the 2017 Citi Open:

His wish was not granted. In the second round of the Open, Zverev was ushered out of the tournament by Borna Coric, bowing out 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (4). That stinging setback may have had much to do with a lackluster end of the 2017 season. In six tournaments following Flushing Meadows, Zverev made it to only one semifinal. He qualified for his first ATP Finals in London, but was victorious in only one of three round robin matches.

Hoping to make amends and commence 2018 more on his own terms, Zverev was beaten in the third round of the Australian Open by the industrious Hyeon Chung in five sets, but, revealingly, did not win a game and collected only five points in a dismal final set. Not until near the start of spring did Zverev raise his game to a lofty level, making it to the semifinals of Acapulco. Not long after, he was runner-up to John Isner at the Masters 1000 tournament in Miami.

The strong showing on the hard courts in Florida helped Zverev considerably as he approached the clay court circuit. On the dirt, he took the title in Munich, defeating Chung in the penultimate round of that tournament, ousting Philipp Kohlschreiber in the final. In his next appearance at the Masters 1000 event in Madrid, Zverev got on an even better roll, taking that title commandingly without losing a set, closing out his impressive five match run with triumphs over Isner, Shapovalov and Dominic Thiem. In five matches and 48 service games over the course of that week in Spain, Zverev was never broken.

As if to underline that his back to back clay court tournament wins were not achieved accidentally, Zverev went right on to Rome, and nearly secured the title on the Italian red clay. Fending off any feelings of fatigue after sweeping Munich and Madrid, he got to the final in Italy with noteworthy wins over Kyle Edmund, David Goffin and Marin Cilic. Confronting Rafael Nadal in the title round, he nearly prevailed, building a 3-1 lead in the final set. The Spaniard took advantage of a rain delay and raised his game remarkably at the end to win the last five games for a 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 victory, but Zverev had demonstrated that he was a legitimate Roland Garros contender.

For the first time ever at a major, Zverev advanced to the quarterfinals in Paris, but three consecutive five set tussles en route to the last eight deprived the German of the energy to be at peak efficiency down the stretch. Thiem took him apart, but Zverev irrefutably was making progress at the majors and was ready to make his presence known on one of the premier stages.

Or so it seemed. At Wimbledon in early July, Zverev was pitted against the ever dangerous Latvian Ernests Gulbis in the third round. They travelled to a fifth set. As was the case in Melbourne when he was knocked out there, Zverev did not win a game. Losing was one thing; getting beaten in that manner again was a sign that he had, at least to an extent, given in emotionally.

Zverev should be better than that. He can be a stauncher competitor on a regular basis. He must learn to reach back more unwaveringly when it counts. He has to demand more of himself than he did in either Melbourne or Wimbledon.

Be that at it may, here he is, the favorite to hold onto his crown in Washington, hoping for another stirring run in Canada, wanting to arrive in Cincinnati fresher this time around than he did a year ago. Zverev surely would love to replicate his 2017 summer exploits. He clearly knows what he can do if he puts his mind to it. Presumably, Zverev has mapped out the rest of the summer, and the remainder of 2018, in his mind, knowing that he owes it to himself to finish this campaign with a gusto that was sorely missing a year ago, realizing that consistency is the common currency of the most prodigious players.

It would be unreasonable to expect Zverev to defend both his Washington and Canada titles, although he could well take one of those tournaments. But that is secondary to something much larger for a player who can authentically be in the mix for the year end No. 1 ranking season year along with Nadal, Federer and the fast charging Djokovic, who is currently stationed at No. 5 in the ATP Race to London.

Zverev, though, badly needs to at least make the final of the US Open to validate his status as a candidate for the year-end No. 1 spot. That means pacing himself intelligently across the rest of the summer, pointing all the while toward the US Open as his primary target, making certain that he comes to New York in the right frame of mind with a sense of justifiable optimism and a body that is not worn out.

These next few months and years are of the utmost importance to Zverev. In some ways, he is an impatient young man. He yearns to claim the game’s sterling prizes, and waiting until he is 25 to reach that territory is not what he has in mind. It is up to him to bring out the best in himself at the US Open this year. Whether or not that happens will depend on many factors—the draw, good fortune, hard work, serendipitous circumstances, the conditions—yet primarily it will come down to Zverev’s capacity to meet the moment and deal with it forthrightly.

I am convinced he will succeed in the long run and win multiple majors, but how he fares in the weeks ahead—and what he accomplishes at the US Open—will essentially determine his career trajectory over the next five years. Zverev may be only 21, but he has been around the block. This will be his fourth US Open and his 14th major altogether.

It is time for him to make a move. I, for one, am fascinated to find out if he can move beyond himself, rise to a new plateau, and realize his largest goals in the near future.

ATP & WTA Washington D.C.
Catch all the action from the Citi Open with live coverage from three courts on Tennis Channel Plus beginning Monday, July 30th at 2:00 PM ET. All matches also available on-demand.

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