What can Lendl bring to Zverev's game? A look at the new partnership

by: Steve Tignor | August 30, 2018

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NEW YORK—There was a familiar face doing an unfamiliar thing in Alexander Zverev’s player box in Louis Armstrong Stadium on Thursday. The face was Ivan Lendl’s, the same stony one that we watched win eight Grand Slam titles as a player in the 1980s and 90s, and coach Andy Murray to three more over the last decade. But instead of sitting impassively, as he had for much of his tenure with Murray, this version of Lendl was...clapping. He was...chatting. He was...urging Zverev on with positive body language. When Zverev held serve with an aggressive forehand winner and looked in Lendl’s direction, the man known as Ivan the Terrible may have even cracked a smile.

Last week, after months of rumors, Zverev announced that Lendl had officially joined his coaching team. The next day, the Czech could be found on the practice courts at Flushing Meadows with the German. As Zverev lost a practice set to Juan Martin del Potro, and took out his considerable frustration on his racquets, it was Lendl, rather than Zverev’s father, Alexander, Sr., who stepped in with a few quiet words of advice.

“The relation was always there,” Zverev said of Lendl, who has also worked with Zverev’s physio, Jez Green. “We’ve known each other for a few years now. I felt like after Wimbledon [where Zverev was upset by Ernests Gulbis], it was a perfect time to kind of maybe try something new. Obviously the reason I’m with him is to compete and win the biggest tournaments in the world. That’s the only reason he would join as well.”

The pairing is almost too perfect to be true. Zverev is in a very similar position to the one Andy Murray was in when Lendl began working with him in 2012. At that point, Murray had been to four Grand Slam finals; Zverev has reached the quarters of a major just once. But Zverev is looking for exactly the same X-factor, and exactly the same ounce of extra oomph, that Murray was six years ago.

The 21-year-old German has won three Masters 1000 titles, risen to No. 3 in the world, and established himself as the best in his ATP age class. Like Murray, Zverev has a solid all-around game with no obvious weaknesses, and all the talents and physical skills needed to win Slams. But also like Murray, Zverev hasn’t found a way to make the most of those skills yet. More important, he hasn’t been able to max them out at the majors.

“There’s a lot of tactical work, for sure,” Zverev said of his time with Lendl so far. “There’s a lot of mental work, as well, to kind of show me what it takes to compete for Grand Slams. That for sure he has showed me a little bit.”

“The training sessions are tough. Hopefully it will show in the results.”

So far, so good. With his 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 win over Nicolas Mahut, Zverev is into the third round at the Open without dropping a set; that’s already one more round than he won here last year. Zverev hit 10 aces and 43 winners, converted all five break points he had, and was broken just once. Eighteen of his winners came on the forehand side, and he appeared to be looking to move forward and attack with that shot more than normal today. When he let loose and bulleted one past Mahut in the first set, Lendl responded with a satisfied nod. At break point in the first set, Zverev also jumped on a backhand return with a decisiveness that has often been lacking in that shot.

“We’re still kind of in the honeymoon stage,” Zverev said of his relationship with Lendl, “so it’s still going great.”

Photos by Anita Aguilar

How can Lendl best help Zverev? He might start with his serve. At 6’6,” with a smooth motion for such a long-limbed guy, Zverev has a strong delivery. But it has never seemed quite as effective as it could be. Zverev is currently ranked just 20th in the ATP’s “Serve Rating” (determined by an amalgamation of statistics), behind such lesser lights as Matteo Berrettini and Denis Istomin. From the ground, Zverev can fall in love with rallying. Rather than moving forward and ending points, he tends to sit back and prolong them—he’s a grinder who Lendl may try to turn into a slasher.

Perhaps most important, in the best-of-five set format Zverev has had a habit of letting his opponents hang around instead of going in for the kill. That was true again in the second set against Mahut today. Up an early break, Zverev had chances to earn another. But he allowed the Frenchman to stay close, and eventually to even the set at 4-4.

All of these flaws would seem to be tailor-made for Lendl to cure. As a player, he virtually invented the putaway forehand. Over the course of his career, he turned his serve from a weakness into a weapon. And if there’s one player who never took his foot off an opponent’s neck, it was Lendl. After he beat Miloslav Mecir 6-4, 6-2, 6-0 in the 1986 US Open final, Lendl talked about how hungry he was, even when he had the match locked up, to keep breaking serve in the third set.

The one mystery that remains for Lendl and Zverev is their personal relationship, and whether the Czech can give the German what he needs psychologically. More than anything, Murray wanted someone who would have faith in him, win or lose; he also didn’t want to hurt Lendl’s reputation by failing.

One of the most important moments of their partnership came after Murray lost to Roger Federer in the 2012 Wimbledon final. When he was asked what Lendl, the famously hard man, had said in that difficult moment, Murray said, “He told me he was proud of the way I played. I think he believed in me when a lot of people didn’t.” A month later, Murray came back to the same court and beat Federer for an Olympic gold medal.

What does Zverev need from Lendl? It may be something different. Zverev has spent his life on the tour, and he already carries himself like the heir apparent to the ATP throne, the young man who would be king. Maybe because of that, Zverev’s most recent outside coach, Juan Carlos Ferrero, said he had trouble instilling discipline in his practice habits. Judging by his upbeat body language in Armstrong today, Lendl might feel that he needs to bring positive energy and visible support to his player.

The question for Zverev may be whether he’s willing to listen to Lendl, and to do what he says, even if the results don’t come immediately. In that sense, he’s with the right guy: When it comes to tennis, if you can’t listen to Ivan Lendl, you probably can’t listen to anyone.

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