“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs...”
Those words from Rudyard Kipling’s “If”—the same poem that is quoted above the entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court—came to mind while I watched Alexander Zverev cruise to a 6-2, 6-4 win over Alex De Minaur in the Citi Open final on Sunday.
It wasn’t that everyone around Zverev lost their heads this week; they just had them rained on, a lot. The weather wreaked utter, painful havoc on this tournament from Day 1 to Day 5. Some players waited days to start. Others had to make it through two matches in the space of 10 hours. It was so bad for Andy Murray that he finally broke down in tears, and then dropped out of the tournament, after finishing his third match at 3:00 in the morning.
If anything, the week in D.C. was even more trying for Zverev. Not only did he face major rain delays, he also had to face his older brother, Mischa, in the second round. But Sascha handled everything like the unflappable pro he is in the long process of becoming.
During their match, Sascha played Mischa like he was any other opponent; then, when it was over, he embraced him like a brother. In the quarterfinals, he came back from a set down to beat an elite player, Kei Nishikori. And over the last two days, he handled two up-and coming fellow Next Genners, Stefanos Tsitsipas and De Minaur, in routine fashion. Zverev may not have conquered the Grand Slams yet, but he’s still a step ahead of everyone else in his age cohort, and he has now defended his first title of 2018. Life gets harder when you’re expected to win, but Zverev looked, acted, and played just like a top seed should in D.C.
After disappointing efforts at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, this was in many ways a season-stabilizing victory for Zverev, and it gave us a good idea of how he’ll win in the future.
For the last two years, Zverev has worked hard to add muscle to his beanpole, 6’6” frame; this week his trainer, Jez Green, says that he has finally reached an optimal weight, one that he wants him to maintain for as long as possible. That muscle was what made the difference against the younger, smaller De Minaur on Sunday. Zverev won because his first serve was stronger, his second serve had more kick, and his ground strokes were deeper, heavier, and higher than De Minaur’s. Zverev was able to control the rallies and move De Minaur from corner to corner without having to go for risky winners. He never faced a break point, and rather than letting his opponent hang around—which Zverev has a tendency to do when he has a lead—he broke serve early in the second set, and was never in danger of giving that break back.
De Minaur, who needed three hours and 35 games to win his semifinal over Andrey Rublev the previous night, never found a way into this match. Still, this was the week in which the 19-year-old Australian found his way onto the tour, and announced his presence to the sport’s fans in the U.S. Weighing in at a little over a buck fifty, the baby-faced De Minaur could be mistaken for a ball boy; only his nickname, Demon, gives you an idea of the intensity he brings to the court.
WATCH —Zverev chats after his win over De Minaur:
Like his mentor, Lleyton Hewitt, De Minaur is scrappiness personified., But he injects more excitement, variety, and risk into the rallies than Hewitt ever did. De Minaur likes to attack second serves and press forward; he throws his body into his two-handed backhand; he runs everything down, and a has knack for taking a hard-hit shot and slinging it back even harder with his forehand from well behind the baseline. De Minaur plays a refreshingly light and springy game, one that makes many of his opponents look like they’re stuck in mud on the court.
Just as important, like the Aussies of old, he looks like he would consider it a disgrace to give anything less than his best, or to ever give up. On Saturday night, from 2-6 down in the second set against Rublev, De Minaur saved four straight match points, and turned that semifinal into the surprise classic of the season. The fans in D.C. may not have heard of him before Saturday, but by night’s end they were cheering him like he was a native son of the city.
That fighting spirit was almost—almost—enough to bring De Minaur back into the final as well. Down two match points while serving at 3-5, he won four straight points. He saved another when Zverev double faulted while serving at 5-4. But just when it looked like another turnaround was possible, De Minaur netted an easy backhand, and Zverev had his title. Two miracles in one weekend was too much to hope for.
For Zverev, this wasn’t an ideal way to close out his ninth career title. He very nearly fell back into his old habit of leaving the trunk open when he had the chance to slam it shut. There will be higher hills for Zverev to climb in the near future, but for now he has done what professionals do: He has won the matches, and the tournament, that he was supposed to win, and defended the ranking points he was supposed to defend. And he survived the Citi Open of 2018, which might be the most impressive feat of all.
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.