Alexander Zverev crashed out of Indian Wells on Sunday night against Joao Sousa, reinforcing an aimless, confused, and utterly brittle period for the German. Because Zverev won two Masters 1000 events last year but then failed to do anything of note at the majors, he is a centerpiece of discussion and a source of frustration for many fans… as he should be. Zverev won Rome and Montreal in such calm and poised fashion that a steady build seemed reasonable… but “poised” and “steady” are the last words one would apply to Zverev in the several months since he left French Canada last August.
Yet, for all the wayward outcomes and miserable matches which have littered Zverev’s path since Montreal, the German is still 20 years old. He is still, all things considered, a young pup. 2018 is not a make-or-break year for him. It could very well be a year in which he has to get kicked to the curb to learn the lessons he needs to absorb. He might not apply those lessons in full until the start of 2020, when he will still be only 22. (He wouldn’t turn 23 until April of that year.)
One man who truly didn’t assemble all the pieces of his career until being 22 years and 5 months old: Roger Federer.
Zverev, as lost and discouraged as he is, doesn’t have to reverse the course of his career in the coming months. Young careers should rarely if ever be viewed that way.
This leads to a reminder that while Zverev’s travails have gained a lot of attention, a number of WTA players are going through similar processes. These processes aren’t exact replicas of the Zverev path — these players didn’t win two Premier Mandatory events last year, for instance — but they illustrate the need for the same caution which must be applied to Zverev’s career.
Consider this a WTA portrait of three faces.
Portrait No. 1: In 2017, Ashleigh Barty was considered a player on the rise… and to be sure, that rise could still occur. Nevertheless, after putting her name on the radar, the Australian’s progress has stalled. She was dismissed in straight sets in her first match at Indian Wells, 4 and 2, by Maria Sakkari. While Sakkari is talented and has made her way into the round of 16, it remains that getting drilled in a lopsided match represents a jolt for Barty. It is the product of not having played a lot since the Australian Open, but the gap between Barty and Sakkari still gives one pause.
Portrait No. 2 belongs to Belinda Bencic. After her win over Venus Williams in Australia, it was obviously premature to think that the Swiss would get back on the exercise bike and immediately go deep into tournaments following an injury-interrupted portion of her career. Bencic had to work her way into playing shape and handle the rigors of full tournaments. She didn’t last long in Australia, but that wasn’t a surprise. She had every reason to be optimistic leaving Melbourne.
She won only one match in Indian Wells, however, and as the year continues, Bencic will feel more pressure to string together wins so that she gets more match play and can build the base of fitness which will lead to sustained performances against upper-tier opponents on tour. She is trapped in the kind of box Novak Djokovic inhabits: She knows she needs to exhibit patience and carry herself with a calm awareness that a transformation won’t occur instantaneously, but she also knows that if she doesn’t win more matches, she won’t find a regular weekly rhythm of match play, which is needed to engineer a revival.
Portrait No. 3 belongs to the woman who beat Bencic in this tournament but then lost in the next round to Petra Martic. Jelena Ostapenko struggled in the North American hardcourt summer swing last year but then improved in the autumnal Asian swing, suggesting that 2018 would be reasonably solid for the Latvian.
After being routined, 3 and 3, by Martic, Ostapenko will leave Southern California without any traction. She has now failed to win more than one match in every tournament she has played this season, save the Australian Open, where she won two matches. Ostapenko’s run at Wimbledon last season suggested that she would be able to keep her focus after life-changing experiences (the French Open title), but that hasn’t happened for the most part. Ostapenko has regressed since her first major title instead of building a bigger, better tennis fortress.
It is easy to want to be frustrated by these three WTA players and their lack of progress. It is even easier to be frustrated with them when teenagers such as Sofya Zhuk, Amanda Anisimova, and Marketa Vondrousova are all still alive in Indian Wells and have advanced beyond their vanquished counterparts. If the teens can figure out tennis, why can’t others?
This is where a Zverev-like word of caution must enter the picture: Barty, Bencic and Ostapenko have not turned 22 yet. They are still in the early stages of their careers. They can’t look over their shoulders at what the 18- or 19-year-olds are doing. They can’t wonder when — or if — they will be surpassed in the pecking order by other players, because that would imply insecurity in their current posts.
Time is still on the side of Ash Barty, Belinda Bencic, and Jelena Ostapenko, as is the case for Zverev. These three players — and others in their positions — have to be patient enough to remember that reality, even when (especially when) difficult, is a mistress which has to be embraced and accepted.
Growth and change won’t occur in any other way.