Roger Federer gives up Halle crown to brilliant young pretender Alexander Zverev

Alexander Zverev beats eight-time champion Roger Federer at the Gerry Weber Open to reach the final

It may not have been the semi-final line-up that German fans expected, but it would be hard to find a single fan, German or otherwise, who would not be relishing the contests they had in prospect.

For a start, there were two Germans, and as Alexander Zverev and Florian Mayer were in opposite halves, it was possible that they could contest the first all-German final since Philipp Kohlschreiber won the Gerry Weber Open in 2011.

That they played two of the top three seeds in the shape of superstar and eight-time champion Roger Federer and the newest top-10 star on the stage—and most prolific winner this year—Dominic Thiem made final Saturday all the more of a crowd-pleaser.

It was, too, a battle of the generations. The 32-year-old Mayer, playing with a protected ranking and finding some of the best form since his seven-month layoff, faced 22-year-old Thiem, who had been in stunning form all year, with four titles and 47 match-wins across all three surfaces.

But the blockbuster match was undoubtedly the first, between 34-year-old Federer and 19-year-old Zverev, here with a career-high ranking of No38, the highest-ranked of the ATP’s #NextGen wave of talent.

From the first, there has been something special about the teenage German who stands 6ft 6in tall, speaks three languages fluently, handles the media like an old pro, and began setting ‘firsts’ as soon as he transitioned from No1 junior to the senior tour.

“First 17 year old… to finish in the top 150 since Rafael Nadal, and to reach a semi-final since Marin Cilic… youngest player in top 100 in 2015… and current ATP Star of Tomorrow. Arguably, that stardom has arrived.

For Zverev has the kind of looks, bearing, game, and work ethic that have already begun to garner headlines aplenty, many of which suggest that here is a No1 in the making. And with reason.

This time last year, ranked 74, he was about to win his first ever Grand Slam match—at Wimbledon. A fortnight later he was in the semis on Bastad’s clay and then the quarters of the Washington 500 on hard courts. He started 2016 with a semi finish on the hard indoor courts of Montpellier—beating No13 ranked Cilic—and beat No15 Gilles Simon the next week to make the quarters of Rotterdam.

He beat Simon again and Grigor Dimitrov before holding match point against Nadal in the fourth-round of Indian Wells. His first final came in Nice, his first third-round at a Major at Roland Garros, and now he was in his first semi on grass against Federer—and guaranteed to be seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time come Wimbledon.

He was also looking for his first top-10 win against, of all people, the man he freely admits is his idol. He put it thus in Rotterdam this February: “When I got to know [Federer], 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.”

So could he become the first teenager since Nadal a decade ago to actually beat Federer, and in the place where the Swiss had dominated like no other? For this was the eight-time champion’s 12th straight semi-final appearance in Halle, where he was now on a 15-match winning run.

The two had, in fact, played once before, in Rome last month, and although Federer was hampered by his back problem, the teenager found himself a set down before he could produce his best tennis—a rabbit caught in the headlights of Federer’s aura, it seemed.

But there were undoubtedly question marks over Federer’s form after a season marred by injury and illness. Knee surgery, gastric flu, and a recurrence of a long-standing back problem saw him miss Rotterdam, Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid and the French Open. This would be only his 22nd match the year.

This meeting, then, was different: Zverev was going from strength to strength, riding the confidence of his home crowd, riding the fitness of long hours in training, and with the intelligence to soak up information like a sponge from every match. He was ready to take advantage of some rusty play by a Federer still not back to his nimble, attacking best.

Zverev held serve the easier through most of the first set, throwing down the gauntlet with a wave of 130mph serving right from the start. By the time they reached the tie-break, the German had dropped just three points on serve, and by the time he edged to the set, 7-6(4), he had dropped only one more—and none on his first serve. During the 39-minutes, he hit a pitch-perfect lob, struck a couple of cracking return-of-serve winners, and looked every inch a champion in waiting.

In the second set, there were a few signs of nerves, but despite two double faults, he resisted the pressure, while Federer looked, by his standards, heavy-footed and uncertain of how to contain his opponent. In more than two hours and three tough sets, he would come to the net just 17 times and win only 11 points there—a less aggressive strategy than of late.

Federer came under heavy pressure in the eighth game, fired a forehand long for break point, netted a couple of backhands, and eventually saved the day after a five-minute struggle with some clutch serving. But he finally made some inroads on a growing number of second serves from Zverev, and converted his fifth break-point chance in the 13th game. He served out the set, 7-5, with an ace.

More chances came Federer’s way at the start of the third, but he misfired time and again, showing some uncharacteristic frustration with each break point he missed. Zverev drew confidence, upped his level again, broke in the sixth game, and served out in style, 6-3.

Many of the headlines will talk of Federer’s broken streak: that he failed to reach the final for the first time in 11 straight years, that he heads to Wimbledon without a title for the first time in 15 years… but he, as ever, was pragmatic about the bigger picture.

“I’m actually quite happy. If I had known three weeks ago that I would play seven matches in 10 days, I would have said that was a dream scenario. Now of course after losing, you think, hmm, should I perhaps be in the final? But in hindsight, it’s probably best for my body, in view of Wimbledon and the rest of the season.”

He cheerfully stood and signed autographs for half an hour as he left Halle en route to Switzerland, where he will take a short break before heading to Wimbledon.

As for Zverev, with this kind of tennis, he has a very real chance of winning his first title on his home turf. He does, though, face fellow German Mayer in another match between the generations—though this time against a man without the illustrious grass record of Federer.

Mayer reached his first final since winning his first and only title in Bucharest in 2011, beating a weary Thiem, 6-3, 6-4, in just over an hour.

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