At 18, Alexander Zverev made the main draw of a Major for the first time, winning a long five-set first-round battle at Wimbledon, and already ranked in the 70s. He then made inroads on clay and hard courts: the semis in Bastad, and his first quarter-final at an ATP500 in Washington, and come early 2016, still only 18, he began to make serious progress on the senior tour.
He arrived in Rotterdam last year from a semi finish in Montpellier and with a win over No13 Marin Cilic to boot, then took out No15 Gilles Simon in the Dutch tournament.
Before he turned 19, at Indian Wells, he gave Rafael Nadal an almighty scare, holding match point before fluffing a volley in their fourth-round match. The error was partly down to youthful inexperience, of course, but he impressed nevertheless, just as he did off-court—the most self-assured and articulate teenager you could hope to encounter.
Put in front of a microphone in Rotterdam, his considerable height, 6ft 6in, his rangy aggressive game, and a confident touch with the media—and he speaks equally fluently in his native German, in Russian and English—certainly belied his tender years. Even then, as now, he had the confidence to talk of his ambitions, while being smart enough to understand that he was just setting out on the difficult road to senior tour success.
Asked about his long-term dream, he paused: “I just want to win tennis matches right now.
“Every kid’s dream is to win a Grand Slam. It’s obviously what I’m working for. But we all know it’s a long way to go.”
He freely acknowledged, too, that he still has to undergo more physical development before he could contemplate reaching his optimum condition.
“Yes, I’m still developing. A lot of ex-players also told me that for tall players, it takes more time to develop than for someone who is shorter, so for us it takes longer to get to the highest level. From building up the body, building the muscles, everything is just a bit harder, but in the end it all pays off.”
And he has wasted no time in soaking up advice like a sponge from tried and tested sources. That began with his family: His father is a former player and his mother a coach. His brother Mischa reached 45 in the rankings at the age of 21 before wrist injury saw him plummet down the ranks. Yet he too, aged almost 30, is this week at a career-high 29—and the two brothers play the doubles tour on a regular basis.
Sascha, as the younger Zverev is called, said of the relationship:
“We really support each other, especially Mischa helped me with my breakthrough. He’s been on the tour for so long and told me so many things about the players.
“I played three sports—soccer and field hockey. The club where I come from in Hamburg has one of the best hockey teams in Europe… But when I was 12 years old, I had to make a decision and there was not really any doubt that I would be a tennis player.”
The fraternal bond has impacted on other parts of his life, too. Asked about his idol, the teenager used one word: “Roger”.
After a pause, he elaborated:
“I mean Roger is my brother’s favourite player by far, so whatever your brother likes, you like. Also when I got to know [Federer] a bit on the tour, he’s even more my idol now—the way he acts and communicates with all the players.
“He’s been giving me tips on tournaments. He always takes me to practice…I don’t know why, to be honest! He’s been a big help, telling me how to act on court and what to do in the important moments.”
Zverev junior continues to play doubles—not a common feature among the top singles players, and explained why ahead of his Halle campaign.
“Doubles in general, you learn a few things, to serve and volley, to hit returns in the correct spot… I think it’s also very important to play in doubles—and it’s always special to play with my brother every single time.”
Things have moved on apace in the last 12 months, not least at his home tournament in Halle. In just his second appearance, he reached the final, beating Federer in the process—albeit a Federer still managing a knee problem after surgery earlier in the year.
Zverev went on to claim his first title in St Petersburg, beating No9 Tomas Berdych and No3 Stan Wawrinka, and ended the year at No24. This year he led Nadal two sets to one at the Australian Open, losing after more than four hours. Just a week or two after his 20th birthday, he beat Novak Djokovic to win his first Masters and break the top 10.
Little wonder, then, that friend and rival, 23-year-old Dominic Thiem, already a contender at the World Tour Finals last year, tipped Federer and Zverev as the most dangerous men in the Halle draw. But what did the young German make of the high expectations his home crowd now has?
“No, not extra expectations. You know coming into the tournament the draw’s very tough. But I know I can play well here, I’ve shown it last year. I feel well in practice and I just have to go from match to match and hopefully I can keep up my good form—and hopefully improve it. Yes, I have good memories from last year.”
He went on: “The competition is enormous, a very strong field, but of course I want to be involved in the title fight.”
He opens against a man 15 years his senior, Paolo Lorenzi, who at 35 years of age, is at a career-high No33. Then it could be former champion Philipp Kohlschreiber, also very much at home in Halle. The semis could set a sixth meeting with Thiem—the Austrian has a 4-1 advantage and won on grass in Stuttgart last year. And finally, if Zverev makes it to the final, he could face eight-time champion Federer for the second year in a row.
But as always, the young star will be buoyed up by his family. He and his brother won their opening doubles match here, but both have singles ambitions—indeed Mischa could face Federer before his younger brother does.
Sascha admitted in press that the entire clan was now here.
“Along with brother and father, my mother is here now. And she also brings the dog—that’s the important thing!”
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