Welcome Alexander Zverev Men’s Tennis Has Been Waiting For You
Alexander Zverev‘s 6-4, 6-3 defeat of Novak Djokovic in the Rome final was the breakthrough from a young player tennis fans had been waiting for, and the ease and confidence with which he managed it signaled to the tennis world there is nothing Next about Sascha Zverev, this big time tennis champion is all about the now.
Ten years is a long time in tennis, a couple of generations, and with one generation, Nishikori, Raonic, Dimitrov and co, already lost in the shadows of the Big Four and their drunken frolics in the tennis fountain of youth, and the other one, Thiem, Sock and Vesely, looking, at times, to fade, men’s tennis has been looking to the #NextGenATP to step up and out into the spotlight, a search cut short much quicker than expected with Zverev’s 6-4, 6-3 defeat of Novak Djokovic in Rome, in the German’s debut ATP 1000 final appearance, an 81 minute commanding performance worthy of 20 year old Greats from tennis history, the likes of Sampras, Hewitt, Safin, and Djokovic himself.
Djokovic’s game was not the only significant factor standing in the way of Sascha Zverev taking the next step in his career– Djokovic and the history he brought with him was standing there, the stubborn bully it is, too. Ten years ago, at the 2007 Rogers Cup, 20 year old Novak Djokovic won his first ATP 1000 trophy, beating Roger Federer in the final. Since then, the Serbian has gone on to win a record (tied with Rafa Nadal) 30 ATP 1000 titles, hauling one piece of silverware after another alongside Rafa Nadal, Andy Murray (who broke-through as a 21 year old in Cincy and has won 14) and Roger Federer (won his first of 26 at Hamburg 2002 aged 20).
For those with their already all too young hard-court knackered backs up against the walls, the Nishikoris, Tomics, and Kyrgios’ of the world, the history gets even more threatening. Since that 2007 Djokovic Rogers Cup win, other than the Big Four, only Nalbandian, Davydenko, Ljubicic, Tsonga, Soderling, Roddick, Wawrinka and Cilic,a and now Zverev, have won ATP 1000 titles and since 2011 and before this season’s Rome, only four of 58 ATP 1000 titles were won by players outside of the Big Four, a pillaging of the tour’s biggest prizes which has left the Dimitrov-Raonic-Goffin-Nishikori generation on the sidelines looking on at a tennis world which promised Gold yet delivered only silver.
A world very different to the one in which 20 year olds like Marat Safin, Llyeton Hewitt, and Pete Sampras, the big talents of their generations, had their hard work and skills rewarded with slams, Masters titles, No.1 rankings, their tennis elders fading in their late 20s, their decline in speed and strength naturally giving way in a survival of the fittest. In the new world of Dimitrov and co, the late 20s was when the top players of their time were having a second wind, their physical strength hardened and fine tuned to the rigors of an ever lengthening season, their experience making the difference on the big points as they competed in yet another slam or ATP 1000 final while their younger rivals struggled to make one.
The Tennis world can change, though, at the flick of a wrist, and has been sent spinning on its axis in 2017, a season in which Federer and Nadal have been doing the timewarp, and Zverev has joined them in the dance, invoking the memory of a 20-year old Marat Safin who won Barcelona and made the Hamburg final in 2000, the German’s backhand as good a doppelganger for the Russian’s as it gets. A dance which may leave Dimitrov and co wondering if they, heading into their late 20s, the age Djokovic and Murray were in their prime, are ever going to feel their first wind, one which would come when Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray had finally choked at the fountain, wondering if Zverev and co are going to blow them out the water, and make tennis a young man’s sport all over again.
Zverev, now he has proven he can win big, and, fortunately for him in today’s climate, before he was really expected to, is more likely, as a result, to win big again soon, and may prove to be another hurdle Dimitrov and co have to clear rather than having a clear sprint to the finish line of potential fulfilled.
Zverev will not be the only hurdle, either, his victory signaling to the likes of Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios, two other young players on the verge of breaking through, that when it comes to the Next-in-Line waiting for the tennis big title traffic lights to change from amber, they may as well, with nothing to lose and everything in their favor, play like the lights are already green.
Zverev saw green early on in Rome, breaking Djokovic in the opening game, and then pulling away like a seasoned driver in the ATP 1000 race, leaving Djokovic in the red Clay dust, the German holding serve all the way to the end of the first set, breaking Djokovic again at 1-1 in the second set and holding serve all the way to 5-3 when he broke Djokovic to seal the win. The 20 year old did not face a single break point the entire match, a feat only Federer had achieved playing Djokovic in an ATP 1000 final, the sixteenth seed putting in the kind of serving display Federer would be sure to admire, one needed when facing Djokovic’s return of serve potential.
Zverev’s ground game was smart, too, aggressive when the chance arose, but, most importantly, with Djokovic struggling with the wind and his temper, patient in the rallies, refusing to leave the Serbian any door ajar, the kind of opening the Serb, only a year back, would have stuck his nimble foot in and then kicked down.
Not every ATP 1000 final will present itself with such an opportunity like Zverev came across in Rome, but the ease with which the now ranked No.10 German composed himself when ahead, the way he strode with the unlikely grace of a Giraffe born to slide through clay towards his first ‘big’ title tells us that if the ATP 1000 hoarders, Federer, Nadal (who Zverev has run close twice now and whose heavy defeat of him on his birthday in Barcelona was the toughest love Zverev could have asked for), Murray, and Djokovic, bring anything less than their best to the big matches, Zverev will be there, green light or not, discontent to be packed away neatly into any #NextGenATP Box to be opened in November, bursting out, instead, to say “Surprise, I am here”, to celebrate his talent and hard work right now, the gifts he brings most warmly welcomed.
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