A few minutes after his 6-4, 6-3 win over Novak Djokovic in the title match at the ATP Finals in London, Alexander Zverev was asked what tactics he had used to beat the world No. 1. Four days earlier, after all, the 21-year-old German had lost in demoralizing fashion to Djokovic, 6-4, 6-1.
“I tried to be way more aggressive,” Zverev said. “And I tried to keep the ball in the rallies more, because I was missing way too much [last time].”
In other words, Zverev tried to to do it all: To serve big, to hit his ground strokes huge, to move forward whenever he could, and, also, not to miss. That is, on the one hand, a ludicrously ambitious agenda. On the other, it’s what any player needs to do if he wants to have a chance to beat an in-form Djokovic on this low-bouncing, slow-bouncing surface that he loves. The Serb had faced just two break points all week; a sixth season-ending title seemed to be the logical culmination to his rise back to the No. 1 perch over the second half of 2018.
On this day, though, immediate momentum would trump long-term logic.
Zverev had begun the week in a funk. He had complained about the length of the season. He had moaned his way through a close, scratchy victory over Marin Cilic in his first match. He had lost his motivation entirely against Djokovic on Wednesday. He hadn’t won a title since August. Yet on Friday, without warning, Zverev caught fire. Specifically, his serve caught fire. He rifled 18 aces in beating John Isner to reach the semifinals. Once there, he served almost as well in knocking out Roger Federer. But was he really ready to become the first player since 2012 to beat Federer and Djokovic in the same event?
The answer, we now know, was an emphatic yes. Zverev beat Djokovic with his serve; the world’s best returner broke him just once, and that was because Zverev briefly grew anxious with the lead and double-faulted twice. Zverev also beat him with pace from the ground; he surprised Djokovic by turning up the beat on his down-the-line backhand and his crosscourt forehand. And he showed off a net game that, while hardly polished, is now functional enough to close out rallies.
But the biggest surprise was Zverev’s ability to win the points that Djokovic always wins—i.e., the long ones, the 20-plus-shot rallies, the ones that move both players all over the court, test all of their shots, and inevitably leave the guy who loses them more winded than the guy who wins them. In 2011, it was Djokovic’s newfound talent for winning those types of rallies against Rafael Nadal that signaled a turning point in their rivalry. Today it was Zverev who did the same to Djokovic. By the middle of the second set, Djokovic was taking extra time between points, and trying to end them quickly with bailout drop shots. Zverev was better in every aspect of the game today. How often have we ever said that about an opponent of Djokovic’s?
This wasn’t the way the Serb must have expected to end 2018. He won’t be crushed by the defeat, of course. This was a renaissance season for him, and the last five months have mostly been a dream. But he does close it with two surprising, curious losses at the hands of two young guns; Karen Khachanov, a 22-year-old Russian, also straight-setted Djokovic in the final in Paris two weeks ago, and like Zverev, he did it first and foremost with his serve. Looking ahead, those two matches may tell us less about Djokovic’s future than they do about the slowly-evolving, slowly-encroaching next generation of ATP players. Khachanov and Zverev will be formidable foes for everyone next year, not just Djokovic.
“There’s a lot of similarity in terms of the trajectory of professional tennis, of our careers,” Djokovic said of Zverev. “Hopefully he can surpass me. I sincerely wish him that.”
Djokovic is being generous; he won his first major title at age 20, while Zverev, at 21, has reached just one Grand Slam quarterfinal. But we could see today why Djokovic, along with everyone in the game, has thought so highly of Zverev for so long. He still has to prove himself in the best-of-five format at the Slams, but when you beat Federer and Djokovic back to back in the ATP Finals, without dropping a set, you’ve done just about all you can do in best-of-three.
If this is the way Zverev is going to serve—and rally, and compete—in the future, the future will eventually be his.