First came 38-year-old Roger Federer, who won his first Masters title in 2002, and has won 27 since the start of 2004. He was quickly followed by 33-year-old Rafael Nadal, now with 35 Masters titles. Come 2007, and Novak Djokovic, now age 32, began his haul of 33 Masters. The next year, his close contemporary Andy Murray picked up the first of 14—a tally that was halted by repeated hip surgery in 2016.
That has left only 33 Masters titles out of 142 for anyone else since the start of 2014. So it has been a very rare player who has even managed to win two of these prestigious titles: Marat Safin, Andy Roddick, David Nalbandian, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
As for three titles, well beyond the ‘big four’, that has been unheard except by one man, Nikolay Davydenko—until two years ago. Then, a tall, slender reed of a player, Alexander Zverev, strode to the Rome Masters title just a month after turning 20. And it was the first of two for the young German in 2017 amid a clutch of five titles that took him to the ATP Finals and a ranking of No3.
A year later, he won a third title from three Masters finals—and the end-of-year trophy into the bargain.
With such a remarkable breakthrough in ranking and in Masters, he was soon tipped to be the first of the new generation to challenge for No1 and a Major title.
Neither has yet come: a dip in form and confidence triggered by off-court distractions and personal problems halted the ascent. But everything is relative, and still Zverev entered this Shanghai Masters on the back of a semi run in Beijing and on the cusp of qualification for London again.
Did his pep talk from mentor/idol Roger Federer at the Laver Cup help kick him back into gear? He certainly looked more like the player who beat both Federer and Djokovic in London last November, and admitted as much after beating the Swiss this week:
“I finally started to play the way I should play. I was playing really defensive earlier in the year, with not a lot of confidence…but finally I started to play better tennis.”
So with a 4-0 lead over his final opponent in Shanghai, Daniil Medvedev, the German, on paper at least, was the favourite for the title, but that ignored the inexorable rise of the Russian since their last meeting 14 months ago. In Toronto in 2018, Medvedev was a qualifier sitting at No68 in the rankings. Now, he was No4 and already assured of a place at the ATP Finals.
And that was reflected in Zverev’s further comment after reaching the final:
“[Medvedev] is probably the best player in the world right now.”
For the Russian did not just lead the tour in match-wins, 58 of them, and hard-court wins, 45, he was into his ninth final of the season, his third in a Masters, and this was now his sixth consecutive final. What is more, he had not lost a set since his extraordinary five-set final against Rafael Nadal at the US Open.
Along the way, he had nabbed his first Masters title, in Cincinnati, so he was one match away from joining that very exclusive club: a winner of multiple Masters titles.
Medvedev’s confidence, then, was sky high, and he surely had a twinkle in his eye when he said:
“I did say before this year and during this year that Sascha was the best in our [age] group. He won three Masters when none of us were even close to doing this. The positions have changed a little bit—so I think I can contest him now.”
Medvedev’s determination to take the initiative was obvious from the start of the match, and Zverev acquiesced by dropping too far behind the baseline. The German got just one first serve into play in his opening game, and the Russian took full advantage, pinning his opponent back, and breaking for 2-0. Another hold, and Medvedev had won 12 of 13 points, 3-0.
Zverev got on the board in his next service game, and then some extra intensity earned three break-back points. But now Medvedev showed his tactical and physical flexibility with a couple of serve-and-volley plays and an ace to save all three. It was not enough, though, as Zverev worked two more chances, and drew an error for the break.
The German then survived a 31-shot rally, playing with patience and variety: It was all square again, 3-3.
However, serving at 4-5, Zverev wavered, and having not offered up a double fault the whole set, now did so twice to concede the break and the set, 6-4.
Medvedev had to save break point in the first game of Set 2, but then asserted himself over Zverev in the second, pulling the German back from 40-0 to break point, and he won yet another taxing baseline rally, 2-0.
It did not stop there: Medvedev broke again, 4-0: Zverev was in a very tight spot. He was being outplayed by the Russian at the back of the court, and he was routinely passed if he ventured forward. Medvedev seemed able to run everything down, change direction, produce his crisp, flat power on serve and off the ground.
He even threw in a serve and volley play in the fifth game, and so Zverev would have to serve to stay in the match.
He managed that, saving the embarrassment of a bagel set, but he could not halt the cool, calm and collected Russian. Medvedev served it out with an ace, 6-1, after less than an hour and a quarter—one of the most comprehensive wins on the tour this year.
The Russian’s style is cut from a different cloth than many of his contemporaries: his victory drew a quiet smile, a warm embrace of his opponent, and admirable composure, as he explained:
“I said it during the US Open or after Cincinnati… everybody is talking that they need new guys, something new, so I gave them something new: I don’t celebrate my wins, I just stay calm, I do my job and bam, done!”
Now he grinned broadly. But his most emotional moment came when talking of his family, most of whom were not in Shanghai but watching from home:
“I want to say something for those who are so important to me but not in Shanghai, starting with my wife. With her, I am feeling invincible, she believes in me more than I do, so that’s an amazing feeling.”
Just as eloquent was Zverev, who touched on the trouble that he has begun to put behind him: “It’s been a very rough year for us, thanks [to my team] for sticking with me through the hard times…It’s gonna get better, I’m gonna get better. We will at some point lift trophies up again together.”
He surely will, but for now, the German’s words on the victor will resonate with everyone else on tour:
“You are probably the best player in the world right now and how you are playing is unbelievable—and I wish you nothing but the best… Sixth final in a row? I think you could maybe make nine or 10!”
Medvedev is scheduled to play every week until the ATP Finals, though surely something will be cut to preserve his fitness for London. That said, do not be surprised if a seventh final comes in his home city of Moscow next week.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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