It was the kind of loss which can drive a player crazy.
Mischa Zverev — with the bottom half of the Newport ATP draw wide open for a run — had a great chance to make a final, weeks after winning his first ATP title on grass in Eastbourne. The older Zverev brother drew a struggling Vasek Pospisil in the round of 16, having not played in the round of 32 due to a bye as a top-four seed in the 28-player event.
Zverev won the first set. He served well throughout the match but watched Pospisil play a brilliant return game in the second set to push the match into a third set. In that third set, Zverev carried the run of play through the first 10 games. Twice, he got to 30-40 on Pospisil’s serve. Twice, he had a chance to win a second-serve point. Twice, he whiffed on a second-serve return due to an unexpected bounce off the worn grass surface. Twice, Pospisil escaped to hold serve. Zverev then lost a highlight-reel point at 5-5, 15-30, when he failed to knife a quick-reaction volley crosscourt. He left the shot down the middle, where Pospisil was able to redirect it for a winner and 15-40. Pospisil broke Zverev on the next point and then served out the match at 6-5 in the third.
Losses don’t get more frustrating than that. Zverev was an eyelash away from taking control. He served well on a surface he likes. Yet, a handful of tipping-point moments didn’t go in his direction. Bounces on the grass surface didn’t go his way. He was three points from victory at 5-4, 0-15 on Pospisil’s serve in the final set… but he lost. He could have been bitterly disappointed.
In talking to Tennis With An Accent after the match, however, Zverev was the picture of relaxation. It’s not that he didn’t care — anything but. Zverev pursued this match against Pospisil with energy and clarity. The relaxation shown by Zverev in the Newport press room was the product of wisdom. In speaking to Saqib Ali, Zverev was a man at peace with the result, mere minutes after the fact. The words he spoke were mature, but what matters just as much as the words themselves is the manner in which Mischa Zverev uttered them. Not the slightest tinge of bitterness, not the smallest ounce of regret, just a clearheaded and accepting awareness of the fine margins of professional tennis.
Here’s what Zverev had to say, his voice radiating inner calm:
“I was training very, very hard the last couple weeks, trying to get ready for the summer swing in the U.S.,” he said. “Coming here (to Newport), this felt like a gamble, anything can happen.” Zverev alluded to the two whiffed second-serve returns on break points in the third set versus Pospisil.
Zverev bounced from Eastbourne to Wimbledon and then to Newport, putting three separate grass courts on his 2018 calendar. What did he notice about the way the courts played?
“The grass courts are different,” he offered. “Wimbledon, they have great grass courts but they’re very different.” Zverev clarified that the nature of grass courts is not only different from one tournament to another, but that the way courts play differs among various courts at Wimbledon.
Why was Zverev unable to make a run at Wimbledon after winning Eastbourne?
“It wasn’t a matter of not being in shape (at Wimbledon),” he said. “I felt terrible; I couldn’t find a rhythm at all.” He noted he barely had any time to practice on the courts at Wimbledon due to making the Eastbourne final.
What also mattered at Wimbledon?
“It depends on how you feel,” Zverev specified, referring to the way an athlete feels on a given day. What he said was easy to compare to a baseball pitcher who, on some days, throws an electric fastball with great movement. On other days, that pitcher has no snap or bite on his pitches. Some days, a basketball player’s shots all go in the basket, and other days, the ball keeps rolling off the rim.
Zverev was candid and expansive in assessing his own results over the past two years. He confided to Saqib that he didn’t expect to win Eastbourne last year, so he played the event, won one match, lost in the second round, and then made a good run to the third round of Wimbledon. He noted that the week before the 2017 Australian Open, he played a tournament and gained one match win. Losing in his second match gave him time to practice at Melbourne Park’s tennis facility and make the run to the quarters, his best-ever showing at a major tournament.
Zverev continued. He noted that in 2017, he played Geneva and made the final there on clay, only to then lose in the first round in Paris. Then came this year, winning Eastbourne and losing in the first round of Wimbledon when barely able to practice on Wimbledon grass. He pointed out his own pattern.
Zverev acknowledged this as well: He said that qualifying matches sometimes help players to get adjusted to conditions in the opening rounds, which are often tough matches for the players who start late, as he did in Newport this week.
Saqib, noting Zverev’s awareness of patterns and trends, asked the German how much importance he assigns to the study of data.
“There’s no data for sun, wind — what’s the data for that?”, he said, noting that if he sees strong numerical correlations, he definitely incorporates a pattern or tactic into his game, but that if the results are inconclusive or contextual, he won’t place too much emphasis on the numbers. “If it’s just data, then it’s too simple,” he continued. “Tennis is a game which depends on what the opponent does.”
Zverev spoke with the authority of a man who has been through many different experiences in tennis. At age 30 — and turning 31 this August — this older brother in a visible tennis family knows how fragile the experience of playing professional tennis can be. This measured, thoughtful reaction to a close loss in Newport is the kind of reaction which doesn’t come easily on tour. Acceptance of the life one signs up for is not equally present in all athletes. Mischa Zverev, to borrow an oft-used Wimbledon reference — met with Triumph and Disaster on Wednesday in New England and treated those two impostors just the same.
The wisdom of Mischa Zverev wasn’t limited to the self-appraisal he offered in Saqib’s post-match interview. Saqib asked about Sascha Zverev’s career. This is what Mischa had to say:
“He is maturing — it’s a normal path he’s on. I think he will grow into the role of being top five in the world, on and off the court. It just takes time to develop because it’s not easy to be kind of famous, to be good at what you’re doing, and to be grown-up at such a young age. You have so many different factors that can influence your world and your life. You have a bad day on court and 15,000 people watch you and another couple million comment to you on Facebook… it’s not always easy. I think he’ll manage to become a good, solid player and also a good individual human being.”
Mischa Zverev — in his words and his way of being — certainly sets a strong and positive example for his younger brother, at Newport or anywhere else on tour.