On Friday, as the afternoon wore on and Alexander Zverev and Adrian Mannarino failed to appear for their third-round match in Louis Armstrong Stadium, the tennis world—or at least the one we see on social media—began to collectively freak out. Where were they? Had Mannarino, who was in close contact with the coronavirus-positive Benoit Paire the previous week, been disqualified? Why was the USTA mum on the subject?
The one person who didn’t seem bothered by any of it was Zverev. Even as his starting time in Armstrong came and went, he could be seen kicking back in a lounge chair in his suite in Arthur Ashe Stadium, wearing just a pair of shorts and white socks. When the camera caught him in full chill-out mode, Zverev happily held his hand up, waved, and flashed a, “What, me worry?” grin at the world.
“I’m relaxed. I watched the other match. What else am I supposed to do? I was in my suite,” Zverev said, before adding, with a smile, “I didn’t know the camera was on me that much as well. I only realized afterwards that I was shirtless on TV.”
Zverev’s rampant shirtlessness has been a major topic of discussion during the first week at the Open. But the important takeaway from the above story is less about what he was (not) wearing, and more about his reaction: The 23-year-old German took the delay in stride, the way he has been taking everything in stride in the New York bubble so far.
That includes his fourth-round opponent on Sunday, Alejandro Davidovich Fokina. Zverev made quick work of the world No. 99, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1, in just 94 minutes. Zverev continued his stellar serving with 18 aces. He hit 39 winners against 22 errors. He was helped when Davidovich Fokina hurt his ankle in the third set, but by then Zverev was firmly in control.
“It was pretty good quality,” Zverev said of his performance. He must have been particularly happy to have double-faulted just twice.
Zverev began the year by reaching his first Grand Slam semifinal, at the Australian Open, and now he’s achieved another breakthrough by reaching his first US Open quarterfinal. But things have changed for him in 2020, the way they have for everyone else. Zverev grew up on the tour, tagging along with his father, and older brother, Mischa, and he has traveled with his family his entire career. When the circuit shut down this spring, though, Alexander cut out on his own for the first time.
“You learn that tennis, at the end of the day, is not everything,” Zverev told CNN last week. “…I kind of went to Europe by myself, and I was alone for about one and a half, two months without my parents, without my brother, without anyone else, and you just learn to appreciate little things more.”
“I had to really grow up in a way, because I had to train myself, I had to go through my daily life myself, grocery shopping, food, everything like that, I had to do it myself, which I never used to do.”
During the break, Zverev began a coaching partnership with Spanish legend David Ferrer; the two will resume working together after the Open. More notoriously, Zverev took part in Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour—forever to be known as the “ill-fated Adria Tour”—and later was caught on video at a crowded party, at a time when he was supposed to be quarantining. Zverev’s family and coaches cited safety concerns in skipping the trip to New York, which means he’s on his own at a big event for the first time. So far, Zverev, who is staying with other players at a Marriott hotel on Long Island, seems to be enjoying the mix of freedom and containment the best he can.
“All you have is tennis and the bubble, so you can’t really get away from it,” he said on Friday. “You can’t really have a fresh mind like you do at other tournaments.
Zverev’s independence may only be short-lived, but could it help him at the Open, and in the future? For some players, leaving the nest is a positive. Djokovic, for one, thrived as he became less closely identified with his parents. On the other hand, Rafael Nadal never took the experts’ advice and fired his Uncle Toni as his coach, and that worked out pretty well, too.
For now, a second straight Grand Slam semifinal is very much in Zverev’s reach. His next opponent will be Borna Coric, and he’ll be solidly favored to beat the Croatian. Whatever happens, he seems happier on court than he has in years past; six months away from the thing you love will do that to you.
“I think it’s unnecessary to complain right now,” Zverev said of the ups and down of life in the bubble.