For 18-year-old ‘Sascha’ Zverev, the younger of two tennis-playing brothers, is beginning to win long matches, big matches, and close matches with impressive regularity.
After losing in the first round of the Australian Open to Andy Murray, Zverev junior reached the semi-finals in Montpellier, beating Marin Cilic in the process, and the method of his progress was far from easy: four matches, two of them three-setters, five tie-breaks and three more sets going to 7-5.
The next week he was in Rotterdam, wowing the crowds with victories over the higher-ranked Vasek Pospisil and Gilles Simon—in a third-set tie-breaker—to reach the quarter-finals.
A few more days, and it was Marseille and a three-set loss in the second round to Tomas Berdych, 7-5 in the third, and within a week, he was facing Berdych again, playing for Germany against the Czech Republic in Davis Cup. It would be an emotional marathon of 4hrs 20mins and more tie-breaks, but eventually a 6-7(6), 6-1, 6-4, 6-7(5), 4-6 loss for the teenager.
Then, of course, he was hot-foot to Indian Wells, where he is this week in the main-draw for the first time.
In the first round, he beat Ivan Dodig—coming back from a set down to win in three in 2hrs 18mins. So the question, as he targeted his first Masters third-round was, how much did he have left in his long, teenage legs? Was it enough to take on Grigor Dimitrov, one of the men who was in a similar position six years ago—the young talent predicted to spearhead the next generation?
Dimitrov, now aged 24 and ranked 26, also broke into the top 100 as a teenager, and slowly matured his way to four titles as he turned from 22 to 23. The victories took him inside the top 10, but Dimitrov subsequently slid back into the 20s as his form and confidence blew hot and cold.
There were, though, some good signs at the start of this season. The elegant Bulgarian pushed Federer to three sets in Brisbane and four sets at the Australian Open, lost the Sydney final in a third-set tie-break, and made the semis in Delray Beach.
He also took on Zverev for the second time with the benefit of a first-round bye, and in the knowledge that he had won their only previous meeting, in Basel 2014, though the then-17 Zverev had still taken the first set.
The young German would do just the same on the biggest stage at Indian Wells, too. And he would answer any doubts about his endurance: This contest would be even longer than his Dodig victory.
Zverev immediately had Dimitrov up against it in the first set, giving the Bulgarian little chance to break, and converting his own break chance to take the opener, 6-4.
The teenager then seemed to flag, both physically and mentally, in the second set and Dimitrov began to tidy up his own game, eliminate the errors, and raise his serving level. The No23 seed broke to take a 3-1 lead, held for 4-1, threw in some pitch-perfect drop shots, and fought off break points to level the match, 6-3.
Zverev looked all done in, threw his racket to the court in frustration, and slumped in his chair. Dimitrov, now with all the momentum and confidence, broke in the first game of the final set, and Zverev was looking defeat in the face at 0-2, 0-40. It took eight minutes, but the young German did hold, and gradually got his second wind.
After an easy hold, Zverev went after Dimitrov’s serve and got the break back to level at 3-3. Now he was striking the ball crisply and penetrating the court with huge pace. Dimitrov answered in kind: Here were some of the finest rallies of the match.
With two hours on the clock, Zverev held to 15, then held to love for 6-5 in barely a minute. This had the look of a tie-break, until a fluke net-cord winner to the German brought up break point, and he grabbed his chance to close out the win, 7-5.
There is clearly still some physical development to come, as Zverev himself admitted only last month in Rotterdam, but when it comes to mental maturity and self-belief, he seems already to lack little. He afterwards spoke as though he and Dimitrov were a similar age rather than separated by six years in age and experience.
“I tried to stay as calm as I could. Grigor played well for an hour or so, from the middle of the second set until the middle of the third. He didn’t give me many chances, but I knew I would get my opportunities, and I used them well.
“Grigor is such a good player. He has so much potential to really do well. We will see [this matchup] a lot in the future.”
First, though, Zverev will see Simon again, after the No16 seeded Frenchman beat Vasek Pospisil, 1-6, 6-0, 6-1. It is sure to be another long and tough encounter: It took Zverev almost three hours to beat Simon in Rotterdam.
Beyond that, should Zverev beat the Frenchman again, he could take on the ultimate physical challenge of Rafael Nadal.
Also in this quarter of the draw, No5 seed Kei Nishikori beat Mikhail Kukushkin, 6-3, 6-3, while Adrian Mannarino beat No19 seed Benoit Paire.
In the top quarter, Dominic Thiem continued his tour leading match-winning run to 21 by defeating qualifier Jozef Kovalik, 7-6(4), 7-6(3). No7 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Vincent Millot, 7-5, 6-1, and next faces Sam Querrey. No18 seed Feliciano Lopez beat Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, 6-2, 6-2, and will next play Roberto Bautista Agut.
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