Alexander “Sascha” Zverev has not missed tournaments due to injuries in recent months. He has played a full list of events on tour. His movement has not been compromised. Shoulders, elbows, the body parts essential to performing tennis’s most central physical actions, have all been fundamentally fine. Physically, there is nothing noticeably wrong about Zverev, who has not needed to take six or seven months away from the tour.
Yet, Zverev is genuinely immersed in an attempt to mount a comeback.
It is not a comeback from injury, so in that sense, it doesn’t fit the traditional or standard notion of what a “comeback” means. Moreover, since Zverev didn’t step away from the tour, he has not left it, which erodes the idea that he is waging a comeback. However, in the larger and more expansive sense of “coming back” — of responding to a bad patch of play or a negative period in a career — the possibility of a comeback is the only thing the younger Zverev brother is focused on. In a certain sense, he has focused on it too much.
When everything is going well for him, Sascha displays the poised defense and lucid, authoritative hitting which make it hard for opponents to find a way through him. This was especially on display last year in Rome, also in Montreal. Zverev powered his way to two Masters titles, giving his NextGen cohort a pair of significant ATP scalps. Nick Kyrgios came close in Miami last year, but the fact that Zverev broke through not once, but twice, offered the appearance of a player who was in the process of making a steady ascent in his sport. Surely, the weird juju enveloping Zverev in best-of-five-set matches at major tournaments would fade away. Surely, this 20-year-old was not going to make a clean and neat rise on the tour free of hardships or interruptions, but it seemed in August of 2017 that Zverev would take two steps forward for every backward step.
His tennis journey since Montreal in 2017 has not taken that trajectory at all. Zverev has taken backward steps without the counterbalance of progress at other times. He has regressed without showing tangible signs of improvement.
This is not a crisis, mind you. Zverev is still not yet 21 years old (April 20). He is a young tennis player several years away from what — in the sport’s own life cycles — represents middle age. The constant and necessary reminder with a player Zverev’s age (it applies even more to 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov) is that he is still in a period of his career where he is learning how to handle himself on tour. No young player wants to go through a season in which he gets his backside kicked around on a relentless basis — that can erode confidence and belief for the future. Yet, part of growing up as a professional athlete, especially in a solo-athlete sport, requires walking over the hot coals of adversity. Those moments offer information and wisdom; it is up to the athlete to learn the lessons found in difficult moments, and apply them in the course of time. Rafael Nadal immediately knew how to play and win, especially on clay, but he is the exception which proves the rule in tennis. It wouldn’t be a terrible thing if Zverev fails to rebound in 2018. It would be a terrible thing only if he doesn’t show in 2019 that he learned the right lessons.
Naturally, though, Zverev would like to leave 2018 with the sense that he can adjust when his game turns in the wrong direction. He would like to end this year knowing he can solve problems and be his own best mechanic, the source who can fine-tune his game more than any other person.
With this in mind, Saturday’s very close Miami Open win over Daniil Medvedev — 7-5 in the final-set tiebreaker — could be just the thing to improve his 2018 and the learning process attached to it.
Zverev addressed this after the match:
“Usually if you look at my history, the tournaments that I do well in, I always play a very tough three-setter in the first round, so hopefully this can be another one,” Zverev said. “I obviously didn’t play my best, but sometimes it’s important to just find ways to win matches like that.”
Zverev didn’t overthink the topic. His self-assessment was lucid and right on target. Improvement is a constant goal and requirement for any athlete at any point in a career. The fail to evolve — while other athletes take forward steps in their development — means stagnation if not regression. Yet, while improvement is constantly sought, and while Zverev’s coaching changes reflect his fierce desire to unlock more of his game, there are some moments when merely bagging the win and living for another day count more than any technique-based evaluation.
The more precise point to make after Zverev’s narrow and topsy-turvy win over Medvedev: He has earned another match, another chance in which to make improvements to his game. Without this win, he wouldn’t have had the chance to harness his strokes. Now, he at least has that chance. Whether he will do something with the opportunity is another matter, but at least Zverev has it.
David Ferrer figures to give Zverev a scrap in the next round, if only because Ferrer makes opponents earn what they get. Ferrer has built a career on being the more consistent player in the face of an opponent’s occasional flashes of brilliance combined with prolonged valleys of inconsistency. It is up to Alexander Zverev to learn how to shorten the length of his bad patches, to make his valleys higher than the dark, deep places they have been since Montreal.
As a side item to the piece above, Zverev had this to say about the new ITF Davis Cup proposal:
“It should be every three or four years,” he said. “I think they should make it a massive event in the middle of the summer in one country like the soccer World Cup. Play it over two or three weeks, going from city to city, playing in different arenas and stadiums, and make it one of the biggest events that we have. I think they format that they’re trying out now is good, but if they would make it every three or four years, it would be an amazing event.”
Zverev reiterated that this proposal could be shoehorned into a 16-team group stage format. His thoughts were well-organized and structured on the topic. He hopes his tennis this coming week in Miami can acquire the same qualities.