US Open Series

#NextGen makes history in Washington, but ‘old guy’ Sascha Zverev lifts the trophy again

World number three Alexander Zverev beat teenager Alex De Minaur to defend his Washington Open title on Sunday

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
World number three Alexander Zverev Photo: Marianne Bevis

Four young men in line to reach the end-of-year showdown at the #NextGen Finals in Milan—all currently ranked in the top eight of those who will be 21 at the end of 2018—had already made a piece of history before final Sunday in Washington.

Three teenagers, No7 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, No16 seed Andrey Rublev and the No72-ranked Alex de Minaur, joined the top seed and defending champion, 21-year-old Alexander Zverev, to become the first 21-and-under quartet to reach the semi-finals at the same main-tour event in 23 years.

Zverev, of course, has been notching up youthful achievements since he too was a teenager. He had already won eight titles from 13 finals since the age of 19, three of those titles at Masters level. And put to one side the Road to Milan: Last November, he made the cut on the Road to London, the ATP Nitto Finals.

In Washington as world No3 and top seed, he put out Tsitsipas in a statement victory, asserting his 18 extra months of experience, physical development, and maturity in a first-time meeting with the second in the Milan race. It was impressive, as was his aggressive and confident comeback against a blistering Kei Nishikori in the quarters.

He now led the tour for match-wins, a 40-11 run, and was, without doubt, the favourite to reclaim this important title as the points-rich North American swing headed towards the US Open.

However, his only previous meeting with the slight Australian de Minaur was a marathon effort for both men, a Davis Cup five-setter grabbed by the tall German in a final-set tie-breaker—and played on hard courts.

De Minaur began 2018 ranked just 208 but reached the Brisbane semi-finals and Sydney final in back-to-back weeks—the youngest player to reach semi-finals in consecutive weeks since Rafael Nadal in 2005.

The only non-seed to make it through to the semis in Washington, he had put out three seeds, including his show-stopper against Rublev on Saturday night. He saved four consecutive match points from 2-6 down in the second-set tie-break before pulling out the win, 5-7, 7-6(6), 6-4, after almost three hours on court.

And before he arrived at his final test in Washington, he was assured of breaking into the top 50. But it was an almighty task to try and become the youngest champion since Zverev himself in St Petersburg in the autumn of 2016.

As it was, this would be the youngest tour final since Nadal beat Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells in 2007, and as Zverev told the crowd afterwards, “I hope you enjoyed this. We could be playing against each other for 15 more years!”

The superiority of the top-seeded German was soon as obvious against this teenager as against the last. He broke immediately and held to love, broke again, and held with two impressive net finishes for 4-0.

In fact, de Minaur would have to dig deep to make any inroads. The Zverev power off both wings—and the German’s backhand is more than a match for his forehand—together with his big serve and real ability at the net courtesy of his doubles play with elder brother Mischa, was making him almost impenetrable. Add in his growing fitness and improved movement, and he was hard to out-pace and pass.

De Minaur did get on the board in the fifth game, but Zverev would close out the set with two aces in half an hour, 6-2.

The Australian stayed with Zverev for longer in the second set, and stuck with the attacking game-plan that suits his flat-hitting game of angle and early striking so well. At under 6ft tall, though, his serving cannot claim many easy points, and Zverev was more than happy to step in and make first-strike winners off anything falling short or high.

The German broke in the third game and barely offered up even a deuce game on serve, and not a single break point in the entire match. De Minaur staved off two break points for 3-4, and two more—this time match points—for 4-5. But despite a spirited effort, he was unable to halt the defending champion, who served out his second Washington title in a row, 6-4, in just 73 minutes.

So the oldest of the four young semi-finalists, the self-proclaimed ‘old guy’, showed just why he is touted as the one who will eventually break the stranglehold of the ‘big four’ at the top of the rankings. He retained his No3 spot behind Nadal and Roger Federer with the win, though he will have to do it all against next week in Toronto, where he defends his Rogers Cup title, to keep Juan Martin del Potro at bay.

This 50th year of the Washington tournament warranted a new trophy, named after Donald Dell, and Dell himself pronounced Zverev as “the future of tennis”.

He was not wrong, but he might have added that this 21-year-old is also the present of tennis, and the leader of a growing, fast-rising band of #NextGen brothers, who are ready and waiting for the over-30s generation to give them an inch. For they will take a mile.

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