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Long before a pandemic redefined how we live our lives, tennis players would refer to their global circuit as a bubble: a traveling circus of solo acts, with well-compensated players and their vast support teams insulated from many of life’s realities.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a player who has more comprehensively occupied this bubble than Alexander Zverev. His parents—father Alexander and mother Irina—were both top Russian players. Zverev’s older brother, Mischa, turned pro in 2005. Though technically a citizen of Germany (Alexander is the only German-born member of his family), Zverev is more accurately a citizen of tennis.

Perhaps Zverev’s comfort in the tennis bubble was what allowed him to simultaneously have the best year of his career while also facing charges of domestic abuse from his ex-girlfriend, Olga Sharypova. The charges were first made public in a November 2020 story written by Ben Rothenberg in Racquet. A follow-up piece appeared in Slate in August 2021. In October, the ATP announced its own investigation.

“I think with this investigation that is now finally happening I hope this can be done and dusted from a third individual party and we can move on with everything else,” Zverev said this fall.

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Then there was the tennis. It’s notable that Zverev’s primary tennis taskmaster in his youth was his mother. Like Jimmy Connors and Novak Djokovic, Zverev was taught in a highly disciplined way by a woman strongly focused on the sport’s fundamentals—most of all, the ability to apply sustained pressure from the baseline. On his best days, Zverev is oppressive in the manner of Djokovic, particularly able to smother opponents with his backhand. On lesser days, Zverev is prone to passivity, squandering the reach and power advantages you’d expect to see from a 6’6” player.

The Zverev serve is one of the most bewildering deliveries in tennis history. His first serve is lively, frequently coming in around 130 m.p.h. The second serve, though, is often more than 50 m.p.h. slower—a mild kick serve that a skilled recreational player could return proficiently. In another era, attackers such as Patrick Rafter, Stefan Edberg or John McEnroe would have repeatedly approached the net to punish Zverev.

But today’s tennis isn’t played that way. And so, to steal from three greats of the 1990s, Zverev can start a point like Pete Sampras, and then construct it on a spectrum that ranges from the firepower of Andre Agassi to the consistency of Michael Chang.

The mix worked quite well in 2021. Zverev won a career-high six tournament titles, across clay, outdoor hard courts and indoor hard courts. Two of those runs came at Masters 1000 events, in Madrid (clay) and Cincinnati (hard). In between, a powerful and emotional moment at the Tokyo Olympics: Zverev’s gold-medal effort included a semifinal win over Djokovic by the most unusual score of 1-6, 6-3, 6-1; in the finals, he steamrolled Karen Khachanov. 6-3, 6-1.

"There are only few people in this world who are happier than me at the moment," Zverev said in Tokyo. "I can't compare it because this is so much bigger than anything else in sports.”

Zverev's serve, a liability for much of his young career, turned a corner in 2021.

Zverev's serve, a liability for much of his young career, turned a corner in 2021.

Zverev capped off his season with a superb run at the ATP Finals. As was the case at the Olympics, as well as when he won the season-ending championships in 2018, Zverev finished strong, defeating world No. 1 Djokovic and No. 2 Daniil Medvedev over the last two days.

Zverev’s best Grand Slam efforts were a pair of semifinals at Roland Garros and the US Open. Both times, he lost in five sets: in Paris versus Stefanos Tsitsipas; in New York to Djokovic. These were up-and-down matches, Zverev less sharp at various stages, incredibly dialed-in during others. It was clear throughout 2021 that he’d learned much from his frustrating loss to Dominic Thiem in their five-set 2020 US Open final.

It’s a major challenge to get a read on how Zverev’s game will evolve in the years to come. As a precocious newcomer, he was mostly a forceful ground-stroker. But still just 24, he might well look to come to net more. Or will he? It’s uncertain to determine what factors will trigger Zverev earning his first Grand Slam title—technical, technical or psychological.

Added to this is the question of how Zverev carries himself emotionally. His break-ups with coaches Juan Carlos Ferrero and Ivan Lendl were messy. There was also a legal battle with a one-time agent and a split with another management firm. And there are, of course, the serious abuse charges against him. As straightforward as his tennis game can be, Zverev’s off-court life teems with complication.

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INTERVIEW: Alexander Zverev after winning the season-ending championships in Turin

“No one is strict with me,” Zverev said in a 2020 article published in Der Spiegel, a prominent German newsweekly.

If the bad news is that Zverev has been coddled, the good news is that he has publicly acknowledged this.

Most tennis players enter the sport’s bubble. But Zverev was born in it, akin to the story told by tennis-loving writer David Foster Wallace of the two young fish who one day were asked by an older fish how the water was. One youth turned to the other and asked, “What the hell is water?”

So perhaps for Zverev, the bubble will take care of him, cradle to grave, be it amid the matches or off-court situations.

"You will have friends who come and go,” he said in the Der Spiegel piece. “You'll have relationships that come and go. But family is something you can never replace in life. You only have one family, and that's it."