Matt Zemek

In the finale to the fourth season of “Mad Men,” Faye Miller memorably tells Don Draper — in a moment which resonates through the full life of the show — “I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things.” 

Without getting too deep into “Mad Men” (especially for those who have not yet watched it), Don Draper is restless and easily seduced by the thrill of an affair. On the other hand, when strong, intellectually independent women such as Faye Miller and Rachel Menken challenge him, he doesn’t have the stomach for a relationship in a context of mutuality. He bails. He panics.

That line — liking only the beginnings of things — is hard to shake when considering the young career of Alexander Zverev. He is dashing and talented and can be very impressive when he wants to be… but he is not yet entirely comfortable in his own skin. When challenged, he often loses control. He had seemingly regained an important tennis lesson by toughing out a first-set tiebreaker against Pablo Carreno Busta in Friday’s Miami Open semifinals. He got punched in the mouth, absorbed the blow, and calmly regrouped to overcome a 3-0 tiebreaker deficit to win seven of the next eight points. THAT is what the German had lacked in the past several months since his Montreal title last August. That was the missing piece of the puzzle for the not-yet-21-year-old player with so much promise. He has the backhand. He can play very strong defense. Speed is not a deficiency. His serve can be very formidable. No, his forehand his not yet major league, but he showed signs of being able to hit through the court with it in Miami. He has long arms and considerable reach which help him get the racquet on a lot of shots other ATP players can’t retrieve. He has a lot of natural tools in a body that is still growing. If he can apply the mental arts to the rest of his tennis game, he will be a superstar.

Yet, that mental piece — seemingly rediscovered against Carreno on Friday — just as abruptly left him on Sunday.

Zverev liked the way the Miami final against John Isner began. Down a mini-break at 3-4 in the first-set tiebreaker, Zverev steadied his ship while Isner drowned in a sea of errors. Zverev was the calmer player, and with a one-set lead against an opponent known for lacking a strong return game, Zverev sat in the driver’s seat.

The plot complication: Isner’s serve keeps him in matches whereas Carreno and others can’t get as many free points. Isner can go through extended periods of futility as a returner and still stay in matches because of the ability to lean on the serve. This is exactly what happened at the end of set two, enabling Isner to square the match at a set apiece. 

Fine — many good players blink against Isner and lose one set. It happens. Zverev resolved to be different in set three, but then came a dreadful service game at 4-4. The final error which sealed a break for Isner didn’t merely cede the competitive edge to his opponent; Zverev destroyed his racquet.

This might be a minor detail to many, but it doesn’t come across as minor to me. Here is the explanation:

Some players, every now and then, will smash racquets. It is not a noble thing, but in some cases, it has the effect of pushing a lot of negative energy out of the body. Stop and appreciate what that means, however: A player immersed in a bad patch — in the face of a day which is sliding downward — tries to regroup in time to reshape how the rest of his day is going to unfold. A player about to fall behind two sets in a best-of-5 match still has a third set in which to start fresh. A player down a set and 2-0 in a best-of-3 match still has most of the second set to attempt to make a rally. Racquet smashes in those or similar situations seem reasonable in terms of the dynamic explained above: trying to push negative energy out of the system and get the mind to refocus for the long climb ahead.

Zverev smashed his racquet just after a late-third-set loss of serve which put him one game away from defeat. Reasonable people can and do (and will) vary on this next point, but the details matter to me: Zverev was not refocusing his mind or expunging negative energy; he was mad he was about to lose. Narrowly viewed, we all hate losing, so that might not seem to indict Zverev, but the essential realization attached to his tantrum is that it suggested he was more mad about the result than the process. When an outburst comes at the very end of the match as opposed to the middle, it can carry a different message and a different level of weight. Such was my impression of Zverev in that moment. It looked like a young man not accepting what had happened. 

Again, racquet smashes are not enlightened acts, but if they occur, they ought to own a restorative “clean the system” dimension. This did not feel like such an act. This felt like bitterness in the face of imminent defeat, which Isner quickly delivered to Zverev with an authoritative service hold moments later.

Zverev, in Key Biscayne the past two weeks, regained a lot of what elevated him to two Masters titles and the top five last year… but in the final, when a winnable match slipped away from him, he lost his temper. No, this is not unforgivable or unacceptable — this is a kid in tennis terms acting like a kid — but it does show how much Zverev still has to grow as a tennis player. There are times to “let it all out” and times to keep it within. Near the end of a match is a time to keep it in — why tell Isner, with that tantrum, that one is essentially resigned to defeat? That’s what the outburst conveyed more than anything which might have carried an internal benefit toward Zverev. The German only seems to like the beginnings of things; when the struggle becomes profound or complicated, he doesn’t stand in the arena and persevere, calling to mind his capitulation in the final two sets versus Hyeon Chung at the Australian Open.

It seems we are at a stage in Zverev’s career when — like his idol, Roger Federer — we are waiting for a moment at a major tournament when Sascha discovers a level of toughness he didn’t know he previously had. For Federer, this was the five-set win over Pete Sampras. The moment did not immediately lead to a gold rush of majors, but it just as definitely planted a seed and told the young Swiss that he had the ability to harness his talents. He needed time to do that, but once he got his first taste of sustained elite-level play at a major — at Wimbledon in 2003 — he roared into gear, and the rest was history.

Zverev needs that moment this spring at Roland Garros or in summer at Wimbledon. This doesn’t mean he has to beat an elite player, but he has to show toughness on a scale which has not yet emerged in his career. Once he does THAT, he will show himself that he can embrace a lot more than the beginnings of things.

Then his career will begin to take on greater and more impressive dimensions.

Right now, though, Zverev is too quick on the trigger with an emotional outburst, and too impatient about what he expects from his career.

He needs to become more artful at waiting… and at cultivating the toughness which will let him know when he is ready to graduate to a higher level of status and legitimacy in the tennis world.


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