St Petersburg 2016: Rising star Alexander Zverev beats Stan Wawrinka for maiden title
The US Open champion is left stunned by 19-year-old Alexander Zverev in St Petersburg Open final
In a week when the northern hemisphere tracks the journey of the sun across the equator, the moment when nights become longer than days and summer melts into autumn, tennis also marks its tipping point from one season to another.
The last Grand Slam of the year has been played.
The Davis Cup has demanded its best efforts from many of its top players—only two nations have to find more, and not until the winter solstice beckons and, beyond it, the journey back to longer days.
And the prestigious Asian swing, one of the most lucrative of the year, is gearing up. Its back-to-back three weeks packs in two 250s, two 500s and a Masters—including the biggest purse for a 500 event, $4.2 million in Beijing, and the biggest prize for a Masters, $7.65 million in Shanghai.
All the stranger, then, that the tour slots two indoor tournaments into this week between summer and autumn a full month before the European indoor swing begins the year’s crescendo towards the World Tour Finals.
Yet here they are, St Petersburg and Metz, a couple of gems that have attracted a couple of star-studded draws.
Metz, which has become a strong-hold of French players through the last decade—winners include Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gilles Simon and Gael Monfils—again pulled in three top-20 players, eight top-40 seeds, and enjoyed the prospect of seeing whether world No18, the 22-year-old Lucas Pouille, could win his first title to keep the French theme going. He would meet one of the most improved players of the new generation, top seed 23-year-old Dominic Thiem, who was after his fifth title of the year.
However, St Petersburg, in keeping with its glittering architecture and history, drew the pick of the crop, with three top-10 men, including the US Open champion and world No3 Stan Wawrinka.
The Swiss, aged 31, might appear to be enjoying an Indian summer as he heads towards the autumn of his career—except that for Stan the Man, crossing the equator of his 30th birthday meant no such thing. For Wawrinka has been a late bloomer who turned his early and plentiful shot-making power into a multi-Grand-Slam package after joining forces with coach Magnus Norman in 2013.
Since then, Wawrinka’s fitness and confidence have grown and the results have followed. In the last 12 Majors, he has won three, made the semis of three more and the quarters of another three. He has won 11 of his 15 titles, passed his 400th career win, joined with fellow Swiss Roger Federer to win his nation’s first Davis Cup, and beat that same friend/rival to win his first Masters in Monte Carlo. He also reached his first World Tour Finals, where he has made the semis for three years in a row, and has already qualified this year.
If there is one thing he lacked, it was consistency—except in the biggest matches. Since that first Major victory in Australia in 2014, he has won all 11 or his finals, and was now attempting to win a round dozen. And as he was yet to be broken in reaching the St Petersburg final, let alone lose a set, he was in prime position to do just that.
But he was about to take on a young player still in the very spring of his career, though well on his way to the full bloom of summer. Alexander Zverev, like Wawrinka, is a junior Grand Slam champion, but within little more than two years, he has also made the mid-20s in the rankings—something it took Wawrinka almost five years to do.
The charismatic 6ft 6in German/Russian turned heads from the start, making the semis of Hamburg at 17, scoring top-20 wins at 18—Simon, Marin Cilic, David Goffin—and now 19 he was into his third final and bidding to become the first teenage ATP champion since Cilic in 2008.
It was, then, an intriguing first meeting between the 31-year-old enjoying the best form of his career and the teenager who had not lost a set over stiff competition, including the No9-ranked Tomas Berdych.
What is particularly notable about the tall, big-hitting Zverev is his willingness to use his size to play aggressive tennis, not just from the baseline but at the net with solid smashes, volleys, and not a little touch.
All of which might be said of Wawrinka, though the 6ft Swiss is one of the strongest players on the tour, able to generate jaw-dropping pace on both the forehand and his signature one-handed backhand, but these days he is also quick to ghost to the net mid-point for the deft finish.
And Wawrinka did just that in the very second point of the match, and again for break point. Zverev aced and held, but it set a theme. The German teen fought off two more break points in the third game, but then it was Wawrinka’s turn to face break point, and in the fourth, he was indeed broken.
Remarkably, Zverev broke again for the set, 6-2, but now Wawrinka’s error count dropped and his serving rose. The second set turned on the fifth break point in the third game, despite a bold serve-and-volley play from Zverev. After an hour, the Swiss got the break and, just as in the first set, got a second break to level the match, 6-3, this time with Zverev’s serve floundering.
When the Swiss broke with a forehand bullet at the second time of asking in the second game of the third set, and held for a 3-0 lead, it looked as though the strength and experience of Wawrinka had taken control. The teenager showed flashes of his age—a thrown racket, and thumped ball, a violation warning—but his growing maturity kicked in, he dug into some longer baseline points, and earned the break.
For a few games, they were locked: 4-4, 82 points apiece, two hours gone. Each game became a mini battle, but Zverev forced errors from Wawrinka first in a 15-shot rally, then a 21-shot point, and he broke: He led by one game and one point.
What’s more, he did not blink in serving out the match, firing one final forehand to claim his first title 7-5.
The young man admitted that St Petersburg made it particularly special—after all, though he was born in Germany, his parents came from Russia. He therefore speaks fluent Russian—as well as German and English—and addressed the crowd in their own language:
“I’m really overwhelmed. I just don’t know what’s happening. Thank you all for coming. I couldn’t have chosen a better place to win my maiden title.”
But Wawrinka, whose 11-match streak ended here, spoke for many:
“You are the future of tennis, but you are already at the top. Congratulations for everything you are doing so far.”
Zverev has looked, from the first, like the cream of the teenage crop, and is growing into the role impressively. But Wawrinka is proving that there is more than one way to reach the top in this sport. Don’t be surprised if he is one of the main contenders to win his first World Tour Finals in November.
Pouille, meanwhile, made history in Metz, winning his own maiden title to put himself into still closer contention for a London place. He came back from 0-4 down in the first set tie-break to beat Thiem, 7-6(5), 6-2, in under an hour and 20 minutes. It was his fifth win over a top-10 opponent this year and his 30th match-win in 2016.