The odds seemed to be stacked against Alexander Zverev before his final-round match against Daniil Medvedev in Turin on Sunday. Zverev had lost five of his previous six meetings with the Russian, including one in the tournament’s round-robin stage earlier in the week. To make matters more difficult, he had also survived a draining three-set semifinal against Novak Djokovic the previous evening. It wasn’t enough that Zverev had beaten the world No. 1; to earn the title, he would also have to beat the world No. 2. No one had pulled off that back to back at the ATP Finals in this century.

Somehow, though, Zverev made those obstacles work in his favor. He knew he couldn’t waste time in the final, couldn’t let Medvedev dictate play and run him ragged through long points, with the angles and drop shots that he loves. He also knew he wasn’t expected to win, which meant he could swing a little more freely. Zverev took advantage of that opportunity right from the start to record a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Medvedev, and walk away with his second title at the tour’s year-end championship.

“I knew I had to play my best tennis,” Zverev told Tennis Channel. “I had to be aggressive, because yesterday was a tough, physical match for me, my energy levels weren’t that high before the match. But when I came out, I knew it was the last match of the year, and I looked forward to it.”

Zverev announced his intentions in the third game, when he stepped into the court and drilled a crosscourt backhand to set up triple break point. Fortune favors the brave, as we know, and Zverev’s aggression led to a little good fortune of his own, when a backhand of his clipped the tape and rolled over to give him the service break. That was essentially it for the first set. Zverev’s mix of 130-m.p.h. speed and corner-to-corner accuracy on his serve had made him virtually unbreakable in the controlled conditions in Turin, and the same was true on Sunday. Medvedev tried guessing which direction Zverev would go. He tried varying his return position. He tried chipping his returns and he tried driving them. Nothing worked, and he never earned a break point.

The second set followed the same patten as the first. Zverev started aggressively and earned a break right off the bat with a big forehand return and a backhand winner. Then he methodically held out from there. At a certain point, the only question was whether he would tighten up, the way he had while trying to close out Djokovic the previous day. But if Zverev felt any nerves against Medvedev, he played through them by forcing himself to take the initiative in points as soon as he could. Serving at 3-2, Zverev won two straight points with volley winners. Serving at 4-3, he held with a big down the line forehand. And serving for the title at 5-4, Zverev again hit a down-the-line forehand winner, and closed with a second-serve ace.


“Against these guys, you know you have to play your best, otherwise you have no chance,” Zverev said of Djokovic and Medvedev. “So maybe it’s actually easier than it is against some of the lower-ranked players.”

Zverev’s victory gave him a tour-leading 59 wins and six titles for 2021. But was it also a foreshadowing of 2022? The way Zverev won this match may have been more important than the victory itself. He did it by turning his two traditional weaknesses, his second serve and his down-the-line forehand, into strengths.

When Zverev missed a first serve, Djokovic and Medvedev both retreated well behind the baseline, because they didn’t want to tempt Zverev into going for a huge second serve. That huge second delivery, once a crapshoot, has clearly become a weapon that his opponents fear. Zverev won his share of big points with it in Turin, including the final one.

The same goes for the down-the-line forehand. Zverev went to it early against Medvedev, forcing the Russian to defend the entirety of the baseline. And Zverev was confident enough to go for it, and make it, on perhaps the biggest point of the match. Serving for the title at 5-4 in the second set, at 15-15, he let a forehand fly up the line, and it landed smack on the sideline for a winner.

If Zverev continues to win points with his second serve and his forehand, his opponents are going to have a hard time finding ways to stop him next year. Zverev seems to know it, and to be confident that, at 24, a Grand Slam title is finally within his reach.

“I’m feeling as motivated as ever,” he said with a smile. “There’s one thing missing.”

Succession is the theme of a popular HBO show right now, and it’s an eternal theme on the men’s tour. Who is next in line? With his wins this weekend over the man who sits on the throne, and his seeming heir apparent, Zverev made that question a lot more interesting for 2022.