It has been a season to really remember for the German No.1 Alexander Zverev, who finished off an impressive year by winning his biggest career title to date by claiming the title at the Nitto ATP Finals, and it really has brought up the question once again as to whether next year will be the year that he breaks the Grand Slam stranglehold of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
In the last two seasons, the eight Grand Slam titles up for grabs have all been taken by the “Big 3” of Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal, and the last player to win his maiden Grand Slam title was Marin Cilic all the way back in the 2014 US Open, so winning Slams on the ATP has been incredibly tough and it has always been one of the concerns about whether one of the chasing pack can finally break their duck and turn small steps into great strides–and because of Alexander Zverev’s big success at a young age, many are looking towards him to be that man to make that stride and grab it with both hands. But can he achieve that feat and break through as early as the 2019 season, or does he still need time?
The game is desperate for a new champion, but I think people truly do forget that eye-watering accomplishments of the German at the tender age of just 21 years old. He’s the leading man out of the young, exciting players on tour and he already has three big Masters 1000 titles to his name–after winning his first Masters title at the Rome Masters last year, then winning the Canadian Masters, before being utterly unbreakable on serve in his fantastic week at the Madrid Masters, beating Dominic Thiem in this year’s final. What I’m trying to say is that while Grand Slam success is what these great players are ultimately judged on, Zverev has made big moves and improvements in other areas that will ultimately help him in the long run.
The buzz around the German has been there for a while. Many have expected him to go the full distance in terms of his career success for quite some time and that is largely down to how quickly he adjusted to the way tennis worked from being a top junior and then making his pathway at tour-level still as a young teenager, making the semifinal of an ATP tournament almost straight after coming out of the juniors game. That speaks volumes at the sort of talent that the onlooking tennis fans knew they were dealing with from the very beginning.
Natural talent isn’t everything, and although his undeniable skills and ability were there to be witnessed from the early stages as he made his way on the tour, the reason why the buzz is still ever-present to this day is because of what is has done in the years in between 2014 and the 2018 season. He’s made big calls and profitable decisions including the decision to bring fitness trainer Jez Green into his team from the 2013 season, and that showed that Zverev was making the commitment to not only improve his tennis strokes and his tennis techniques, but he was also dedicating plenty of time to sharpening up his limitations when it came to the fitness side of things. He was always a player that moved very well for his height, but he wanted to get everything out of the talent he was given and he’s done that through combining hard work with that talent he’s always had.
Jez Green obviously is most notably known for his great work with Andy Murray, who he won a Grand Slam title with, so Zverev really knew to get to where he wants to be he had to bring winners into his team that knew the winning formula and knew how to get the best out of the overall package with the work he put in off the court as well as on the court. Green helped out tremendously in that side of the game and continues to be a big presence in his team to this day.
Grand Slam sturggles
The question that has always been thrown at the German is whether he has a mental block when it comes to delivering at the majors. He’s a multiple Masters champion, a ten-time title winner on the ATP, but he’s only managed to get to one Grand Slam quarterfinal thus far in his short career, and many have been wanting and expecting more from him. The way I see it is that the players that he usually takes care of fairly comfortable in regular tour events actually cause him bigger issues at the Slams. We saw at the French Open this year, where he struggled to break through Serbia’s Dusan Lajovic in the second round, then spent a lot of energy in beating Damir Dzumhur and Karen Khachanov in the next two rounds before losing easily to Dominic Thiem in his first Grand Slam quarterfinal of that tournament. But that hasn’t been the only major where he’s found it hard to not only win matches against the players he should beat, but he has found it hard to find his best tennis when it comes to this level, and I think that partly comes down to his overall feeling of apprehension when tackling unknown territory, but it also comes down to him still finding himself as a player I think.
The loss to Hyeon Chung at this year’s Australian Open in the third round was a disappointing one and it stung because of the way he faded from a mental and physical standpoint, but those sort of circumstances have piled up for Zverev in a short space of time, so he really has to be wary of the mental scars that can become hard to put to one side as the years go by. A prime example of just that is Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov. A player with lots of promise, lots of potential, buckets of talent, but the near-misses are something that have worked against him to this date, and although we have seen flashes of fantastic tennis from Dimitrov, he is still yet to make a Grand Slam final, which is a huge underachievement from him. So although Zverev does have the luxury of time and has the benefit of a team of winners around him, he has to be aware that time will not always be his friend and its better to get the monkey off the back as quick as possible.
2019 will be Zverev’s year
Another reason why I think Zverev should get his first Major in the next season is because of the addition of Ivan Lendl in his coaching corner. The German speaks highly of his father and what he has brought to his tennis, but the move to bring Lendl on board and really strengthen an already strong camp is something that will serve him well for a number of reasons. Lendl has been there and done it. He’s won majors at the highest level, he’s lost major finals at the highest level, he’s had to deal with close losses before great success and he’s even accomplished as a coach after guiding Andy Murray to three Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal in 2012. I think Lendl brings a sense of calmness around a pretty chaotic period in the eight weeks of the year at majors and that calmness could rub off on Zverev in the big moments as he will realise he’s got the right foundations to take the next step and grab one of those Grand Slam titles
An ongoing problem that Zverev has had to really try to work out is how to play his own brand of tennis in the right moments. We know he has the power and timing on the serve to dominate matches off the first serve, which helped him in Munich earlier this year tremendously and it was the sole reason he dominated the field in the Madrid Masters as well, so the serve is something I think that will hold up well when other things go wrong, but what Zverev really has to try to discover is how he wants to play moving forward. Does he want to be the overwhelming, commanding, domineering presence that dictates rallies with his court position and with the intent behind his forehand side, or does he want to predominantly be the guy who trades, who makes it difficult and who steps behind the baseline before he finds the right opportunity to pounce?
I’d say that Zverev has found winning matches harder when he does relinquish control of the baseline, and generally does play better when he takes time away, because he has the firm technique of the backhand, and the power of the forehand to beat the majority of the field easily with his baseline game, but the best players sense the right time to play their own way. Djokovic is predominantly a defensive player, but the real key behind his success hasn’t simply been defensive tennis, it has been turning defenae into attack at the right time, and making improvements throughout the whole of his game in order to eliminate any weakness.
All the top players improve each aspect of their game fractionally so that when it comes down to the Grand Slam quarterfinals, the Grand Slam semifinals and the big Grand Slam finals, that they have plenty of weapons to go to if needed, and they usually time their moments in the big matches ever so well. As much as Zverev has shown that at Masters level, beating Djokovic in his first Masters final, backing that up by winning another Masters later in the same year as well, but he now has to really make a point at a Grand Slam. The talent is there, but the tennis world really is expecting now for Alexander Zverev to arrive in the biggest of ways.