Alexander Zverev – from hero to zero in Mexico meltdown

Alexander Zverev ATP Cup
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Alexander Zverev’s Mexico meltdown is proof that a day is a long time in tennis.

On Tuesday morning, he was victorious in the latest-ever match in professional tennis history, finally closing the show at nearly 5am against Jenson Brooksby in Acapulco.

By Tuesday evening, the world number three was thrown out of the same tournament for his catastrophic breakdown in the men’s doubles. After losing the match, he smashed his racket repeatedly against the umpire’s chair, barely inches from the official’s legs.

As he thumped his racket, he was heard to shout: ‘You f***ing destroyed the whole f***ing match.’

The German was quick to issue a public apology, describing his behaviour as ‘wrong and unacceptable’.  He has also stated that he has spoken to the umpire privately. Nevertheless, it feels like too little, too late.

The plaudits he earned for his mental fortitude in the Brooksby win have sailed out the window. Now, the reigning singles champion has lost the chance to defend his title. He has also been fined the maximum amount of $40,000, and even faces suspension from the ATP Tour altogether as investigations continue.

If Zverev is found to have committed a ‘Major Offence’, then a ban is likely. Nick Kyrgios was one high-profile recipient of this punishment, receiving a 16-week suspension following verbal abuse against officials in 2019.

Even if Zverev escapes further official punishment, the damage to his reputation has already been done. It is said respect can take an age to build and just a second to destroy, and Zverev now has some serious rebuilding to do.

We’ve seen similar incidents before. Take David Nalbandian for example. A regular in the top 10 and a Wimbledon finalist, the Argentine is sadly almost as famous for his disqualification at Queens in 2012 as for any of his remarkable on-court achievements. The circumstances were similar, as he was defaulted for injuring a line judge after kicking an advertising board.

On the other hand, there is the case of Denis Shapovalov, who inadvertently hit an umpire in the face after hitting a ball in anger in February 2017. Perhaps because of his age – he was just 17 at the time – and perhaps because of his success since, the Canadian has come out of the incident relatively unscathed.

Zverev will hope for a similar long-term outcome. But he will have to ask himself some hard questions about how he so dramatically lost control at a low-profile doubles match. He is not even a regular doubles player. In fact, he has professional doubles losses than wins.

However, the sad truth is that Zverev’s hot-headed behaviour is nothing new. With his 25th birthday just weeks away, the excuse of youth has long worn thin.

The German is an established veteran on the Tour now. He is an Olympic champion, two-time ATP Finals champion and a winner of five Masters 1000 events. He became the youngest man in the world’s top 20 since Novak Djokovic. As long ago as November 2017, he reached #3.

His on-court success has been excellent, yet somehow underwhelming. For a man of his stunning talent, to reach just one Grand Slam final and three semi-finals is disappointing. The one final he did reach, he lost in devastating fashion, throwing away a two-set lead to Dominic Thiem at the 2020 US Open.

It is hard to escape the feeling that his level has plateaued. The same holes in his game continue to be a problem year after year. His high double faults tally has become a running joke among tennis fans, while inconsistent performances have led to some stunning losses. The lacklustre manner of some of his defeats, such as his straight sets loss to Shapovalov at this year’s Australia Open, have led some to question his desire.

With his stunning talent, Zverev still has the tennis world at his feet. However, his consistent inconsistency has stopped him taking the next step to being a true superstar, and the mental fragility that exploded in Mexico seems to one reason why.

On-court outbursts have been a common sight, and there are off-court issues too. His relationships with former coaches Juan Carlos Ferrero and Ivan Lendl did not end amicably. A more recent partnership with David Ferrer ended at the start of 2021, lasting less than a year.

Most troubling was the allegation of domestic abuse levelled by his former girlfriend Olga Sharypova, first reported in an interview in October 2020. Among those accusations was a claim that Zverev had punched her in the face in a hotel room at the 2019 Laver Cup. Zverev has strenuously denied those allegations. In October 2021, the ATP announced it would be investigating the case, a process that is still on-going.

So what’s next? At the time of writing, Zverev’s full punishment for what happened in Mexico is yet to be decided. Whatever the outcome, there’s no doubt that he needs to make changes, not just to win tournaments, but to win fans.

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