AO Profile: Alexander Zverev
After two Masters 1000s trophies in 2017, is Sascha ready for Grand Slam success?
There is no doubt that 20-year-old Sascha Zverev is the most complete, consistent and advanced player among the ATP’s galaxy of rising stars. Nor is there any ambiguity about how the fast-rising world No.4 tolerates performances that fail to meet his already lofty standards.
So high has the bar been set for the German uber-talent - who won two Masters 1000 titles among five at tour-level for the season while soaring 20 rankings places to trail just Rafa, Roger, and Grigor Dimitrov - that plain-speaking is his preferred post-script.
After “choking” against Jack Sock when playing for a semi-final place at the Nitto ATP Finals in November, Zverev remarked: “It's been an awesome year. Still, the end of the year was absolute crap for me. If I would have played the whole year like I did, by the end of the year I don't think I would have finished top 50.”
Following his worst match, tennis-wise, a second-round loss to Borna Coric to exit a wide-open bottom half of the US Open draw and further extend a meagre record at the majors: “The way I played was upsetting. The tournament so far is upsetting for me. I know that I could have done some big things here. I know that I could have done something that I haven't done before. But I won't. It's just as simple as that.”
Asked what made the difference was in his first-round French Open flop against Fernando Verdasco: “I played absolute s*** made the difference. It's quite simple.”
OK then. How did he assess his straight sets defeat to young rival Nick Kyrgios in the third round at Indian Wells, his so-called “worst match of the year” to that point? “My serving was absolute horrible, my returning was absolutely horrible. From the baseline was horrible. There is not one thing I did well.”
And yet, for all that, there is so much to like about the Zverev game that Federer describes him as having “the full package.” It’s hard to imagine Patrick McEnroe’s comments to the New York Times in mid-2016 not being vindicated - and soon.
Back then, McEnroe said there was nothing about the younger Zverev’s game that did not impress him: “He’s dangerous off both wings, with tremendous wingspan, a big serve and on-court presence. And he’s an excellent mover. His technique is second to none. Maybe he needs to get more comfortable in and around the front of the court and at net. He is as close to a lock as there can be to win multiple majors.”
The irony, then, is that the majors remain his missing link, with Zverev’s winning percentage at the slams of 0.545 comparing unfavourably with his overall number (0.626) and at the elite Masters level (0.652). He is in deficit (three wins, four losses) in five-setters, and the fourth round reached at Wimbledon is as good as it has got in his 10 Grand Slam appearances.
Given the circumstances, and how loud opportunity had been knocking, New York proved to be the most disappointing of 2017. Zverev had claimed back-to-back hardcourt titles in Washington and at the Montreal Masters, and arrived at Flushing Meadows declaring he felt “different about this Grand Slam than I have felt before about the Grand Slams.”
Out he went to Coric in four sets.
“Grand Slams is something I want to improve next year. I want to get further in those tournaments. I want to improve them,” Zverev said pre-tournament. “But, you know, it's going good for me. I'm only still 20 years old. You can't have it all unfortunately, but it's not going bad.”
Far from it, considering the versatility that allowed him to beat Novak Djokovic and claim a debut Masters crown on clay in Rome and triumph on hard courts of Montreal against Federer in 2017. Then there are the smaller titles won in Washington, Munich and Montpellier, taking his career tally to six.
“I think physically I’m a lot stronger - I have showed that over a lot of matches. I am able to last against the best guys. Not only last, but play at the highest level at the end of matches,” Zverev said at the season-ender in London, while also nominating improvement in the key statistic of second serve points won.
“Also mentally, I’m able to finish out matches, able to compete with the best in close matches.”
He certainly did in last year’s epic Australian Open third round clash with Nadal that lasted five sets and over four hours. However high the bar has been set, and however harshly he may mark himself at times, expect the youngest player in the top 35 to clear it on one of the game’s four biggest stages some time soon.