If Andrey Rublev were a boxer, Mike Tyson would likely have been his pugilistic role model. The Russian is always jabbing, always driving forward, always working his opponent’s body with short, sharp punches. No motion is wasted in his strokes, and no time is wasted doing anything but attacking. He hits his passing shots with the same forceful abandon that he does his putaway shots.
If Alexander Zverev were a boxer, he would be in the Muhammad Ali school. Despite his towering height, the German’s first instinct is to play the tennis version of rope-a-dope: He drifts back behind the baseline, absorbs his opponent’s power, and waits for an opening to throw a counter-punch. He has the body of a serve-bot, but the mind of a grinder.
On Sunday, Rublev and Zverev showed that there’s more than one way to win a tennis fight. In the Cologne final, Zverev beat Felix Auger-Aliassime 6-3, 6-3 for his first title of 2020. A few hours later in St. Petersburg, Rublev beat Borna Coric 7-6 (5), 6-4 for his fourth title this season. After several months on the road and in limbo, not knowing when they might have to quarantine or where they might be allowed to go next, Rublev and Zverev seemed to savor the chance to be, and play, at home again.
“Being back in Germany after over a year was very nice for me,” Zverev said.
“Sorry,” Rublev jokingly apologized to Coric after their match, “I really wanted to win in St. Petersburg.”
For Zverev, the title was a way to put the immediate past behind him. Many of us wondered how he would handle the aftermath of his excruciating—there’s no other word for it—defeat in the US Open final. At Roland Garros, he went out in tame fashion to Jannik Sinner, but in his four matches in Cologne, Zverev was in control—in his own, defensive way, of course. He dropped one set in four matches, and was never threatened by Auger Aliassime. Zverev broke the Canadian three times in the opening set, and was able to play aggressively despite ceding the court position.
“I had a very tough final in New York,” Zverev said, “and the next final I played here I wanted to come out and obviously play my best tennis, finish the match…I played my best tennis, as you should do in a final.”
Zverev’s finish-line nerves nerves did reappear when he went up a break in the second set. Serving at 4-2, he double faulted twice and went down 15-40, but he found his way out of the jam. Auger-Aliassime, who is now 0-6 in finals, couldn’t take advantage of anything today.
“I just played bad from start to finish,” FAA said.
If Zverev’s win was a way to put his bad 2020 memories behind him, Rublev’s was a way to extend what has become a breakout season. His four 2020 titles have come in just 11 events, and they’ve been accompanied by quarterfinal appearances at the US Open and Roland Garros. Rublev has been perhaps the most consistent full-time player this season, and he’s launched himself into the Top 10 for the first time.
Rublev was as single-minded and relentless as ever again Coric. Somehow, though, while he hits every ball as hard as he can, he never seems to be overhitting. There’s a sense of control built into his swings, and he doesn’t try to end points with one shot. He loves throwing jab after jab.
The Russian was also, as he admitted, a little lucky today. Down 2-5 in the first-set tiebreaker, he watched as Coric made three straight routine forehand errors to give up the lead, and eventually the set. Sometimes winning is simply a matter of not being the guy who makes the inexplicable error at the wrong time. Sometimes winning is a matter of believing you’re going to find a way to win. Why would Rublev believe anything else at the moment?
Zverev turned 23 in April, and Rublev will do the same on Tuesday. Career-wise, though, Rublev seems to be where Zverev was circa 2017: Winning tour events, rapidly scaling the rankings, moving from second tier to top tier in the ATP pecking order.
Before this year’s US Open, Zverev’s rise had stalled. It’s tough, as we know, to go from winning weekly tour events to winning major events; to go from beating your peers to beating the Big 3. Zverev nearly made it happen in New York, and for the first two sets of the final there, he came out of his defensive shell and played with the aggressive verve that so many of us have wanted to see from him. In Cologne, though, Zverev showed that his first instinct will always be to retreat into that shell. It’s a comfortable place, and he can obviously win titles when he’s in it.
Rublev would seem to be poised to launch his own assault on the Slams in 2021. Will his ascent stall, the way Zverev’s did? If the Big 3 are still waiting at the top of the mountain, it might. On the whole, I’d say it’s better, and a lot less work, to be Mike Tyson than Muhammad Ali on a tennis court. But only one thing seems certain right now: Zverev and Rublev are champions today, and they’ll be contenders, in their opposing ways, for many bigger crowns to come.