“First of all, I’d like to apologize,” Sascha Zverev told a booing crowd in London’s 02 Arena immediately after his 7-5, 7-6 (5) win over Roger Federer at the ATP Finals on Saturday.
The audience wasn’t moved; the boos continued.
What sin had Zverev committed—aside from knocking their favorite out of the tournament? Serving at 3-4 in the second-set tiebreaker, he had stopped play in the middle of a rally because he saw a ball boy drop a ball onto the court behind Federer. For a player to halt play was unusual, but if chair umpire Carlos Bernardes had seen it happen, he would have done the same thing; when there’s a stray ball on the court, the point is replayed. In that moment, Zverev, aside from being distracted, had no idea how long the ball would remain there, how far it might roll, or whether it might eventually impede Federer.
The real problem, as far as the London fans were concerned, was what happened next. Given a first serve, Zverev fired an ace to make it 4-4. Then he hit a backhand winner to make it 5-4. Then Federer flipped an easy drop volley into the net to make it 6-4. Then Zverev closed out the win with a series of penetrating ground strokes and a swing-volley winner.
“If the ball rolled on the court, then the rules are clear,” Federer said later, with a half-smile. “Of course, from being in the rally to being aced there’s some difference.”
What was also clear by the end was that this was a statement win for Zverev. In just his second appearance at the O2, he beat a six-time ATP Finals champion to reach the final, and ended a half-season’s semi-slump in the process. This is the type of match he’s been looking for since hiring Ivan Lendl as his coach in August, and whatever happens in the final on Sunday, it’s a win that should give him a confidence boost heading into 2019.
More than the victory itself—Zverev already had a couple of those over Federer—it was the way, or ways, that the German won that should hearten him. For the second straight day, Zverev elevated his serve. On Friday, he fired 18 aces to beat John Isner; against Federer, he was almost as effective, winning 86 percent of his first-serve points in the first set, and rolling to a series of momentum-creating love holds in the second. Zverev is 6’6” and has always had a good motion, but he has never gotten as many free points, consistently, as it seemed he should. In London, he’s getting them, and that could make a big difference for his future. Zverev averaged 135 m.p.h. on his first serves against Federer.
HIGHLIGHTS: Alexander Zverev d. Roger Federer, 7-5, 7-6 (5)
Zverev also won because he was able to solve the tricky riddle that Federer presented during the rallies. On the O2’s slow, low-bouncing court, Federer tried to mix things up rather than stand toe-to-toe. He tested the 21-year-old by chopping at his backhands and forcing Zverev to bend for them and lift them back over the net. That requires patience, and Zverev never lost his; he played with controlled aggression, hitting heavy topspin forehands to Federer’s weaker backhand, and powering down-the-line backhand winners from difficult positions.
Most important of all, Zverev won because he did what Federer has always done so well: He made a quick strike at the end of each set with a flurry of winners. When Federer served at 5-6 in the first set, Zverev came up with his best forehand pass of the day and broke at love. And with a chance to clinch the win in the second-set tiebreaker, Zverev didn’t panic. He was the one who worked the points and hit the winners, while Federer was the one who made the crucial miss.
Zverev felt the need to apologize when it was over, but there was nothing for him to be sorry for today. Boos or not, it was a win for him to remember.
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ATP Finals (Sun - Sun 11.11 - 11.18) - Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and the world's best collide in the season Finale. Live coverage begins on Tennis Channel Sunday at 7:00am EST.