The brothers Zverev contemplate Roger Federer as the elder Mischa hopes for breakthrough
Mischa Zverev is set to take on Roger Federer in the last 16 of the Gerry Weber Open in Halle on Thursday
The truth was out in Rotterdam last year. The then 18-year-old Alexander Zverev—Sascha—was beginning to make waves after beating Marin Cilic in Montpellier and Gilles Simon at the Dutch tournament.
He was on the verge of the top 50 and before he turned 19, he would hold match point against Rafael Nadal in the fourth round of Indian Wells. Come the grass of homeland Germany and he faced Roger Federer for the second time: He had lost in Rome but in Halle, he caused a major upset by beating the eight-time champion in the semi-finals.
By September, Zverev had beaten Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka to win his first title in St Petersburg and broke the top 20 by the end of the year.
But what of that revelation in Rotterdam? This 6ft 6in star-in-the-making talked like an old pro, in command not only of his native German but of Russian, English, and the entire media room. It transpired that the solid foundation came from his family.
His father is a former player, his mother a coach, and elder brother Mischa had reached 45 in the rankings at the age of 21 before a wrist injury saw him sink outside the top 1,000 in 2015 and barely climb inside the top 200 by that revealing Rotterdam 16 months ago.
Well, the brothers are clearly very close, play a lot of doubles together—quite successfully—and have fed off each other’s work ethic and determination.
Sascha said: “We really support each other. 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.”
But the bond between the brothers has brought with it another point of contact. Asked about his idol, the teenager used one word: “Roger”.
“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.”
Which made it something of coup for the younger brother to meet and beat Federer on home soil a year ago. Since then, the young man has gone from strength to strength, finally breaking into the top 10 last month with a stunning Masters title in Rome.
And this success has been inspiring for the elder Mischa: He too has reached new heights in the rankings, 29, and by playing a Federer-inspired style of tennis: old-fashioned net-attacking that not only buoyed Federer to an 18th Major title but saw Zverev’s fast, attacking game beat Andy Murray to reach his first Major quarter-final.
There—well, there he met his idol for the third time. He lost, but then so did four top-10 players, so there was no shame in that. Then in early summer, Zverev came through qualifying to reach the Geneva final—and was not far from beating top-seed Wawrinka there, too.
He arrived in Halle with a semi finish on the grass of Stuttgart, and now, with Lukas Lacko dispatched in his opener, he has the chance to play Federer again.
The elder Zverev is a charming, amusing man who is clearly revelling in his new-found celebrity. Perhaps until recently, many have not been overly familiar with him other than as the doubles partner to a high-profile young brother. But clearly there has always been much more to him than that—as Sascha knows only too well.
How then did Mischa view this latest meeting with his idol?
“It will probably be a tough match again.”
He laughed: “The last time it didn’t go that good here in Halle.” [He lost 6-0, 6-0.] I definitely hope it will be better than last time.”
“I think the ranking is the biggest difference and therefore the confidence, and I think that overall I have matured, become older. I trained a lot in the last two, three years—physically a bit stronger, and I think in general I am mentally better and more experienced.”
He went on:
“Back then [in 2013], I was quite low in the rankings.” [He was a mere 156 in the world.]
“It was my first quarter-final since a couple of years, and I think I was just happy to be back in a quarter. And it was against Roger and I thought, OK, I won two main draw matches, maybe it will work out again. And, yes, he showed me that will not be the case (laughs). No, now I am more focused and more serious.”
Perhaps he felt the time was ripe to meet the man who will be 36 in just over a month’s time. After all, Federer arrived here after a 10-week break from the tour and gave up a match point in his opening match against Tommy Haas in Stuttgart.
Zverev is far too smart—and admiring—a colleague to see it that way.
“OK, also in Australia when he played Melzer first round, one could have said, ‘Jürgen, now you have a chance to win against Roger because he was injured for six months’—and then he wins the Australian Open and Miami. Therefore, you always have to be careful with predictions regarding Roger.
“Yes, look at the statistics, but statistics always just say something about the past and not about the future. Therefore, looking at the statistics you would say he didn’t play that well in Stuttgart, but I think that doesn’t mean anything at all, because he will be even more dangerous because he will want it even more.”
Asked about how he will approach the match, tactically, it was a fascinating answer from a man who likes to attack the front of court at least as much as Federer does.
“I always say that I need a healthy aggressiveness, because especially when playing serve and volley all the time, you slacken a little either on the serve or when going to the net, or you are a hit too slow, you get passed immediately and easily broken.
“Therefore, I always have to keep up the aggression in order to get to the net quickly or for my serve to be 5 km/h faster. And I think that is a good attitude for me.”
Federer could well have his work cut out on the slick, pacey turf of Halle. Mischa has the extra incentive of a kid brother already through to the quarters, and if he uses a little more shock and suffers a little less awe in the face of the most successful man ever to play grass-court tennis, who knows what may happen?