Heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson endured many difficulties in life before and after becoming one of the most accomplished and feared athletes on this planet. He therefore knew both sides of fear, both sides of what it meant to face challenges. Tyson overcame so much and yet succumbed to so many temptations. He needed extraordinary drive to surmount the obstacles placed in his way, but after gaining global fame and popularity, he lacked the discipline needed to make better, more thoughtful, more loving choices in his private life. He reached the top of his profession and hit rock-bottom as a man. He experienced life from many different vantage points, more than most are able to.
Tyson might have been a rough-edged brawler with little self-control, but he understood the human condition quite well. The following line captures his knowledge of how human beings operate:
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Game plans look great on paper. Then the opponent begins a competition by playing with such mastery that it appears to have anticipated the supposedly perfect game plan in the first place. THEN what can a team or athlete do?
Alexander Zverev has the sexier backhand, the greater global profile, the higher ceiling, and the glamour of youthful promise on his side. Pablo Carreno Busta is nowhere near as much of a headline grabber or spotlight stealer as Zverev, but the Spaniard is currently squeezing as much as he can from his talents. A workmanlike baseline game enabled Carreno Busta to make the ATP Finals as the first alternate last year, following a run to the U.S. Open semifinals. Many far more talented peers have failed to make a single major semifinal or a trip to London in November. Carreno has already checked those boxes and produced terrific results.
Early in the first-set tiebreaker of Friday night’s Miami Open ATP semifinal, PCB was tripping up Zverev. Carreno Busta was winning longer exchanges and exasperating his German foe. Carreno Busta busted out to a 3-0 lead in the breaker with forceful shotmaking while Zverev stood with his hands on his hips, wondering why this set was about to get away from him.
Great players don’t always rise to meet the challenges placed in their path. Tennis is a theater of imperfection, and life as a tennis player before turning 21 years old will almost invariably require growing pains. Yet, while the journey to greatness always involves suffering at some point, the careers which acquire a more elevated place in the pantheon are able to turn highly difficult moments and turn them into immensely satisfying triumphs.
Zverev had not done very much of this since he fought off Richard Gasquet on a marathon-length match point in Montreal last August. At the majors, at the ATP Finals, at Indian Wells, and other places in between, Zverev — winner of two separate Masters 1000 trophies — lost the winning ways which made him appear so supremely formidable for short segments of time in 2017. When Zverev got punched in the mouth by PCB in the first few points of the first-set breaker, he arrived at an intersection of frustration and focus. Would he succumb, or would he spit in the face of misfortune and get the last laugh?
Zverev must have listened to the play “Damn Yankees,” which included a musical number with the following lyrics: “When the odds are sayin’ you’ll never win, that’s when the grin should start.”
Zverev could have descended into a very familiar dark cloud of doubt, but instead, he roared back to snatch seven of the next eight points and claim the breaker. Knowing he had won a set against the run of play — something every elite tennis player must learn how to do on a regular basis — Zverev became an emboldened man in full control of his powers. He rolled Carreno 6-2 in the second set. Now he is one win away from a third career Masters title before his 21st birthday.
Zverev was punched in the mouth. He tasted his own blood. He prevailed anyway.
Many will understandably gravitate to his devastating backhand and his easy power, but Zverev is never more imposing than when he decides to compete with the tenacity he has shown in Key Biscayne. He didn’t play well in the opening rounds of the tournament but found a way past Daniil Medvedev and David Ferrer. He told assembled reporters after the Medvedev win that in previous tournaments he won, he survived a massive first-match test. He still didn’t look convincing against Ferrer, but once he endured yet another difficult night at the office, it was as though he fully believed in his own renaissance and trusted his talents to an extent not seen since last August.
Because Zverev learned how to take a punch and keep fighting, he is now on the verge of another significant trophy. Better yet, he now has a firmer grasp of the lesson all tennis players must learn — and then apply — in order to become their best selves.
Zverev has gained possession of the key. Now he needs to unlock the full measure of his talents. If he can, the 2020s will become a memorable decade on the ATP Tour.
A Zvery, Zvery memorable decade.
Image taken from Zimbio