Matt Zemek

Zverev, Vilas, and Xavier. Two names are tennis names. What the heck is the third name doing in the title of a tennis piece?

You will find out soon enough.

Guillermo Vilas won four majors, two of them at the Australian Open before that tournament fielded 128 players and played seven rounds. Judged purely by the majors, he did not attain a larger-than-life place in tennis history. Yet, Vilas found his way to the Tennis Hall of Fame and legitimate immortality by becoming a remarkable endurance man.

In 1977 — his great season, a historically majestic and significant campaign — Vilas won 145 (!) matches and 16 titles. Such prolific production had to involve many consecutive weeks of winning tennis. Indeed, in that 1977 season, Vilas TWICE won tournaments in four consecutive weeks, one of those runs extending to five.

Here are the start dates of the tournaments Vilas won in his two amazing runs in 1977:

Kitzbuhel: July 10

Washington, D.C.: July 17

Louisville, Kentucky: July 24

South Orange, New Jersey: July 31

Columbus, Ohio: August 7

Bogota: November 7

Santiago, Chile: November 14

Buenos Aires: November 21

Johannesburg, South Africa: November 28

Vilas and Jimmy Connors (who won in three consecutive weeks in 1976, among other years — in Washington, D.C., North Conway, New Hampshire, and Indianapolis) racked up so many match wins and tour titles because there were so many events to play in a much less regulated and constrained tour. Imagine winning four titles at the main tour level in one month, as Vilas did TWICE in 1977. Remember: Not even Rafael Nadal has won all of Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome in the same sequence… and that’s a four-tournament, five-week stretch with a week off in the middle of the five tournaments.

Nadal is the undisputed greatest clay-court player of all time, but at a time (the 1970s) when tennis wasn’t nearly as physical as it is today — for reasons connected to both surfaces and string/racquet technology — the big dogs could eat and eat, week after week. It is not the same tour anymore because so much has changed in how the sport is played. Rest and recovery are so much more paramount than they used to be. It’s not that rest was an irrelevant consideration then; it is merely more paramount now.

This is why Alexander Zverev — even if he gets crushed, 6-2, 6-1, by Rafael Nadal, in Sunday’s Rome final — has already done something very special. It is very rare in modern tennis for anyone to win back-to-back titles and then make a final in three consecutive weeks. Last year, Zverev won back-to-back titles in consecutive weeks in Washington, D.C., and Montreal, but when he got to Cincinnati in week three of his journey in North America, he was toasted. Frances Tiafoe took care of him in his first match in Ohio.

This time, Zverev got to that same point in Rome as he did in Cincinnati and didn’t stop winning. He has thrived in long tiebreakers and close sets, the latest demonstration being his 7-6 (13), 7-5 win over Marin Cilic in Saturday’s late semifinal. Making the finals on three straight Sundays is just not done very often on tour these days, not even among players who play at the 250 and 500 levels and try to pick off clay titles in the weeks after Wimbledon. It’s a tremendous achievement, recalling the Vilas-Connors era of copious match and trophy accumulations… but in the 21st century, one can see the other side of this run. One can see it coming a mile away.

This is where Xavier, a non-tennis entity, enters this discussion.

For those who don’t follow the sport closely, American college basketball is unique in that it values becoming one of the last four teams remaining in the national championship tournament, otherwise known as the NCAA Tournament, held every March and early April. Being one of the last four remaining in any tournament of any kind is very good, but the point of emphasis (and distinction) in American collegiate basketball is that it is celebrated and trumpeted to a considerable degree. “The Final Four” is not merely a numerical reality. It is a formal event separate from the previous rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Whereas the first four rounds (plus play-in games) of the NCAA Tournament are generally held in conventional gymnasiums across the United States with seating capacities of 15 to 20 thousand people, the Final Four is held in an American football stadium holding roughly 70,000 people. It is a set-apart event, a basketball carnival in which the four teams involved are all rock stars and the center of attention in the United States for a week. Being in the Final Four confers stature, success and prestige upon the schools which get there.

With that bit of background having been explained, here is the Xavier angle, which will soon become apparent in its relevance to Zverev:

Xavier University, located in Cincinnati, Ohio, has played in 28 NCAA Tournaments without making a single Final Four. That is second on the all-time list. The leader (Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah) has played in 29 NCAA Tournaments without a Final Four. Xavier could tie the record next year, a record no school ever wants to be a part of.

Last year, Xavier became a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever. Finally, Xavier was expected to go to the Final Four and break its decades-long drought. Xavier put together one great week of basketball after another and seemed primed to finally get over the hump. Yet, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the team — called the Musketeers — fell apart. It lost a late lead and suffered a crushing loss to ninth-seeded Florida State.

That Xavier team had been 10-1 in games decided by six points or fewer heading into the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

Final score: Florida State 75, Xavier 70.

10-2… and no Final Four.

Do you see the Xavier-Zverev parallel now?

Zverev has defied the odds — and deserves to be richly congratulated for doing so. Yet, he is one tired puppy. If he gets a tough first-week draw in Paris, against a player (or players, plural) without a lot of tread on the tires in recent weeks, one can easily imagine an early loss. Forget for a moment the possibility of playing Novak Djokovic in the round of 16. Zverev might not even get that far.

It would be a lot like Xavier storming through its regular season, winning a ton of close games, and then losing in the tournament which mattered the most.

Zverev and outside observers both have to prepare for this possibility.

Zverev has to prepare in the sense that if he does lose early in Paris, he can’t get down on himself. He has to know — and savor — how much he has transcended expectations and normal standards these past three weeks. He needs to enjoy what he has accomplished. At age 21, this run through the Masters 1000 events has profoundly changed the trajectory of his season and altered his status on tour. One bad Roland Garros — as much as you and I have harped on the importance of doing well in Paris — won’t change that.

This is where tennis and American basketball — Zverev and Xavier — diverge. Whereas there is only one Final Four per year in American college basketball, there are FOUR major tournaments every year. If Zverev did crash out early in Paris but rebounded to do well at Wimbledon, his steady upward progression would be affirmed and he wouldn’t have to regret a French Open loss. This run through Munich, Madrid and Rome has — in an unexpected but real way — downgraded expectations for Roland Garros. Speaking purely from Zverev’s point of view, he needs to take pressure OFF himself instead of adding to it in the week before he starts his campaign in Paris.

Xavier allowed the pressure of needing to make a deep tournament run to crash down upon itself earlier this year. Alexander Zverev — recalling the days of Guillermo Vilas — doesn’t have to heap pressure on his shoulders the way Xavier basketball did.

Playing with freedom from fear — which Zverev has done Zvery well over the past three weeks — is precisely what Alexander has to carry into France. Yet, even if he fails, what he has done in the month of May needs to remain a source of satisfaction which sustains him beyond the clay-court season and solidifies his long-term outlook.

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