There are generations within the ATP’s Next Generation, and two of them will meet in the final of the Rolex Shanghai Masters on Sunday.
Alexander Zverev is Next Gen 2017-2018. Over the course of those two years, he won three Masters 1000 events and reached the final of a fourth; beat Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic and nearly beat Rafael Nadal on clay; and rose from No. 24 to No. 4 in the world. Then came 2019, which so far has been a year of struggle and frustration for the 22-year-old German; by Wimbledon, he said his “confidence was below zero.”
Zverev’s troubles left an opening, and 23-year-old Daniil Medvedev didn’t waste any time filling it. Since the start of August, the leader of Next Gen 2019 is 30-3, has won two titles and reached six straight finals, and nearly won the US Open along the way. He’s taken over Zverev’s old No. 4 position in the rankings.
Now the two will meet in a fight for the future, as well as a Masters 1000 title. Who is more likely to come out on top?
Based on their head-to-head record, the answer would seem to be Zverev. He’s 4-0 against Medvedev, and has only dropped one set in those four meetings. But those matches were all played between 2016 and 2018—in other words, when Zverev, rather than Medvedev, was in the ascendant. This is the first time they’ll meet since Medvedev passed him in the rankings.
Based on their current form, it’s a tough one to call.
Medvedev has yet to drop a set in Shanghai; in fact, he has recorded eight straight-set wins in a row, dating back to the US Open final. On Saturday, he faced Stefanos Tsitsipas, who was coming off a win over Novak Djokovic; but Medvedev had the answer for him as well. According to Tsitsipas, he “bored” him to death by doing the “same thing over and over.” Medvedev did what he always does: Pounded his serve, set up camp well behind the baseline, kept the ball low and out of his opponent’s strike zone, and just generally didn’t miss—oh, he also came up with brilliant running passes when he needed them. Tsitsipas was the smoother and flashier player, but Medvedev was the superior one at the end of each set.
By now, we know what kind of performance we’re going to get from Medvedev, who seems to be on his way to making himself, like the Big 3, a threat to win every tournament he enters. We weren’t sure, coming into Shanghai, exactly what kind of performance we would get from Zverev. Yes, he was still ranked No. 6; yes, he had won the clinching match at Laver Cup and received a weekend’s worth of free coaching from Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal; yes, he had reached the semis in his previous event, in Beijing. But it had been a long time since Zverev had gone deep at a significant tournament, or beaten a Top 10 opponent.
Now he has done both. On his road to the final, Zverev has knocked off Federer, as well as two rival young guns, Andrey Rublev and Matteo Berrettini, both in straight sets. In the process, Zverev has turned back into the player we all thought he would be in 2017 and 2018: Essentially, a servebot version of Djokovic. Zverev out-aced Federer 17 to three in the quarters; against Berrettini in the semis, he made 81 percent of his first serves and won 89 percent of those points. When you can back that up with solid ground-stroke play and timely passing shots, you have a player who is very tough to beat. Zverev’s big serves can cover up a lot of mistakes—in Shanghai, though, he hasn’t been making those mistakes in the first place.
Together, the 6-foot-5 Medvedev and the 6-foot-6 Zverev have found what we might call the Next Gen sweet spot: huge serves, consistent baseline games, precision passing shots. Zverev did it better in 2017 and 2018, but this is 2019, and Medvedev is on a roll for a reason.