Cincinnati Masters 2021: Zverev beats best friend Rublev to win fifth Masters title

German looks to follow Olympic gold and Cincy victory with US Open success

Alexander Zverev
Alexander Zverev (Photo: Noventi Open/HalleWestfalen)

Youth was certainly having its day after the 56 men who set out on the Cincinnati Masters journey a week ago narrowed down to the business end of things.

Of course, the definition of ‘youth’ has become more flexible in recent years, courtesy of the persistence and endurance of the men who have dominated tennis for so long.

Roger Federer won his first Masters title 19 years ago, in 2002, age 20. He won his most recent in 2019, in Madrid, age 37.

Rafael Nadal won his first, at just 18, in Monte-Carlo 2005. He won his 36th only three months ago, before turning 35.

The third of the triumvirate—and Novak Djokovic continues to stack up more weeks to his record tally as world No1—sealed his first Masters in Miami in 2007, just before turning 20, and won his 36th in Rome last September, age 33.

So for almost two decades, it has taken an almighty effort from the chasing pack to unseat one of these three, sometimes more than one in a single tournament.

Little wonder, then, that it has proved so hard to break through the glass ceiling at these showpiece events at the tender ages of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. But this week, the picture has shifted: All three super-stars withdrew from Cincinnati—Federer and Nadal with long-term injury concerns, Djokovic to try and regroup and recharge after winning not one but three Majors this season.

And that has certainly helped the cause for the rising number of younger players in the top ranks. Eight of the top nine seeds at the Western and Southern are age 25 and under, while the main ranks reinforce that growing pattern: 12 of the top 20 are in the same age span, beginning with 25-year-old Daniil Medvedev at No2 and taking in five men age 20 to 22.

And it was Medvedev who spearheaded the youthful drive to the quarter-finals, with six of the last eight ranging from 20 to 25, and all four semi-finalists continued the trend—and together marked the first time that the top four seeds made the semis since Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and their fellow former No1 Andy Murray pulled off the same feat 12 years ago.

One of their number, the No3 seed Alexander Zverev, looked to be the first of the new generation to break up the party. He made a huge impression with his quarter-final run in Rotterdam in 2016—age 18, and the youngest man in the top 100. And it was not just on court that he exuded maturity: fluent in three languages, he handled his press obligations as though he had been doing it for years—which he now has.

Sure enough, his prodigious ability earned him a first Masters title in Rome the next year, swiftly followed by his second in Canada. He won another in 2018, when he reached three Masters finals, and now arrived in Cincinnati with the Madrid title and an Olympic gold medal.

Should he win his fifth Masters, it would take him one ahead of Medvedev, and level with some great names: Boris Becker, Gustavo Kuerten, Andy Roddick all ended their careers with five.

But to win that fifth, he would have to take on No4 seed and childhood friend, Andrey Rublev, after the 23-year-old beat his other life-long friend in Medvedev. The two men were born six months apart and met three times in 2013 on the junior tour—Zverev edging things, 2-1. But since joining the senior tour, the stats had favoured Zverev 4-0, helped not a little by injury problems in 2018 and 2019 for Rublev.

But while the Russian’s rise up the ranks—now No7—lagged a little behind that of his two friends, he was increasingly asserting himself among this young generation. He won five titles last year, piling on four straight ATP 500s with victory in Rotterdam this February. He also made the quarters of three different Majors, and reached his first Masters final in Monte-Carlo—beating Nadal—this spring.

Certainly he had been made to work hard this week, though: three three-setters plus two tie-breaks against Gael Monfils. However, it had earned him his first career victory over Medvedev—a huge confidence boost.

Meanwhile, Zverev needed two and three-quarters to get past Stefanos Tsitsipas late into Saturday evening in a tense and exhausting contest. That, perhaps, might tip the scales in Rublev’s favour, and open the door just a fraction wider for the Russian to win his first Masters title.

Rublev faced a break point in the very first game, saved with his signature serve and forehand strike. But the huge hitting of Zverev worked another, and he converted for a swift lead. A minute later, he had consolidated with a love hold, 2-0.

The run continued, and Rublev saved the first of two break points by rushing the net, but it was a dangerous tactic, and Zverev broke again, dictating play from the back of the court: 3-0.

A quarter of an hour in, and Zverev had another love hold, and the crowd was willing Rublev to find his rhythm. He obliged at last, three big serves and a hold, 4-1.

The Zverev serve, though, was firing on all cylinders: 12-12 points, a hold in 50 seconds and a step closer to the set.

Rublev’s serve did begin to perform better, and he made his first love hold, but it was too little, too late. Zverev’s first unforced error came as he served for the set, a double fault, but he finished it off with a big serve and net finish, in under half an hour 6-2.

The start of the second was just as inauspicious. Zverev again broke in the first game, and then delivered another love hold, as the tall German ran Rublev ragged, side to side, into the net with a drop shot, making hay with great angles off both wings.

The Russian looked exhausted, as those repeated long matches in the challenging Cincinnati conditions appeared to be taking their toll. Add into the equation that Zverev was feeling confident enough to come in and finish points with some deft volleys, and this began to look a lost cause for Rublev.

Zverev served another clean game, 5-1, but the crowd roared the Russian on to a love hold in reply. However, Rublev’s body language said it all: He had little more to give unless Zverev’s clean and confident shot-making went off the boil.

The German stepped up to the line with a 30 from 34 record on serve, but nerves suddenly took a hold, and Rublev’s eyes lit up as he made a drive volley winner and earned his first beak point. Zverev obliged with a double fault, and the arena erupted: 5-3.

But it was a false dawn. The German jumped all over the Rublev serve, and converted his first break point for set and match, 6-3, in under an hour. They embraced warmly at the net, and Zverev said afterwards that he refrained from a big celebration in consideration of his friend: “I know how Andrey feels.”

But it had been a one-sided contest that showed all that 18-year-old Zverev’s talent now come to fruition. Before this year, he had never won a match in Cincinnati. In this final, he won almost twice as many points as Rublev, made just three errors from the back of the court, dropped only eight points on serve, and deservedly had his fifth Masters title.

The big question is whether he can produce the same form in the best-of-five format when the US Open begins in a week’s time. He made his first Major final in New York last year, and the winner then, Dominic Thiem, is absent with injury. But… it is surely Djokovic’s to lose, as the Serb eyes that oh-so-rare tennis achievement, the Calendar Grand Slam.

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