Matt Zemek

“What he really SHOULD have done was…”

“What he OUGHT to have considered was…”

“What he NEEDED to do was…”

These are the words of keyboard critics such as myself. I know that as a critic, it is very easy for me, while sitting in front of a television with a glass of water to the side, to make one pronouncement after another. I know the critic often comes across as a know-it-all, when in fact the athlete is the person sweating and toiling in the arena, having to endure the mental roller-coasters and moments of agony on the thorny path to an ATP Tour championship.

Precisely because the critic can always say something simple to describe an athletic feat which is, in reality, very difficult, a critic must use restraint and keep larger tensions in balance. This doesn’t mean withholding criticism; it’s more precise than that. The critic must pick his or her spots to criticize, and give athletes or coaches the benefit of the doubt while still pointing to a better way of proceeding.

That fits the situation attached to Alexander Zverev after his come-from-ahead loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas on Friday in Toronto.

On an immediate level, Zverev and Tsitsipas both played Washington, so the idea that one player benefited more (or less) from playing Washington could reasonably be contested. Also on an immediate level, Zverev would never have become tired enough to lose this match had he finished the job at 4-1 and 0-30 (on Tsitsipas’ serve) in the second set. Zverev could have won this match very easily if he had not made some basic errors, the products of a pure lapse in concentration, NOT fatigue. The fatigue didn’t set in until the third set, when both players played very ragged and uneven tennis.

It is true that fatigue and freshness did not represent the whole story of this Toronto quarterfinal — anything but. A lot of different tension points were competing in this match. Various arguments contain merit and value when discussing this contest, which turned from a routine one-hour match to a very complicated and long three-set battle in a heartbeat.

Yet, with those tension points having been noted, it DOES remain that Zverev played a mentally weary third set. Tsitsipas was physically wearing down, but he fought well and kept his nerves when in danger, showing the rapid growth of a player destined for greatness. Tsitsipas deserves very high marks for his fighting skills and his resourcefulness, but his tennis was not particularly special. Zverev frankly should have beaten him — that is not unfair to Tsitsipas to say as much — but the German lost his way just when he was about to deliver a dagger.

Is it THAT controversial, then, to opine that if Zverev had not played Washington, he likely would have won this match? I don’t think so. Yes, there are points to debate on the margins, and as said above, a lot of different realities were at work in this match, but fatigue was definitely one important part of this mosaic of several factors.

Zverev was defending a title and 500 points in Washington. The idea that a 21-year-old player would want to defend a title is natural and, moreover, healthy. Why shouldn’t a young buck try to win consecutive titles? Zverev has shown that he can indeed defend his territory well. He has made consecutive Rome finals, won consecutive Washington titles, and generally exhibited a lot of staying power on tour ever since Miami back in late March. Zverev has also made a point of developing his physical fitness to the extent that he could play three tournaments in three straight weeks (Munich, Madrid, Rome) and make deep runs without suffering. He also gutted out consecutive five-set wins at Roland Garros. Zverev’s stamina was highly questioned in January at the Australian Open. He has conclusively shown that he can run long-distance races now. That question has been asked and firmly answered. Therefore, the idea that playing Washington before Canada and Cincinnati would not hurt Zverev is defensible and intellectually coherent.

I do agree with — and accept — the contention that Zverev thought he could win consecutive titles in Washington and Canada once again. I do think that is where his mind is. I also can accept that it is a good and hungry mindset for a very young athlete to have.

Plainly stated: I do not think playing Washington was an appalling scheduling error for Zverev. He is young and full of aspiration, and one thing I have long believed about young athletes is that they need to be given space to make decisions and learn from the ones which are flawed. I can live with his Washington decision, even in the midst of his Toronto loss. I don’t view it as a mistake.

BUT (you knew a “BUT” was coming, right?): In the future, Mr. Zverev would do well to recalibrate his scheduling practices.

Look at the difference between Kevin Anderson and Dominic Thiem as a classic example of how to schedule (or not schedule) as a top-10 player with strong credentials. Thiem played a schedule that Fabio Fognini would schedule, but unlike Fognini, Thiem has shown he can do well at clay Masters 1000 events and the French Open. Thiem shouldn’t think that he needs to pick up points at ATP 500s and 250s. Fognini is the player who should do that. Thiem, only 24 — whereas Fognini is 31 — should try to structure his career around the majors and Masters tournaments, given that he is just about to enter his physical prime and doesn’t know what he is fully capable of. Fognini, at 31, has run most of his race as an ATP pro. It is much more sensible and acceptable for him to go “off-road” and bank points at smaller tournaments, since he knows those venues are where he has always performed best. Thiem is not in that situation and should take a different path… but he didn’t.

Kevin Anderson, on the other hand, after making a second Wimbledon final and reaching the top five, withdrew from Washington. He realized he needed rest. He realized that pursuing a points-pickup opportunity at a 1,000-point event mattered more than trying to defend his 300 finalist points in Washington from the previous year. Anderson is now one win away from making a first Masters final, which would continue to increase his standing not only in the rankings table, but in the larger picture of global tennis. Anderson has realigned his goals in accordance with his changed place in the cosmos. Thiem made no such adjustments. Those careers are going in very different directions as a (partial) result.

Scheduling matters. You are seeing examples of why it matters at every turn this summer. Zverev is only 21, so if he wants to test his physical limits, fine — really, that’s fine. There’s no sarcasm there. I directly accept that desire and view it as healthy and normal.

However, let’s just put it this way: If Zverev is scheduling like this at age 24, he will be in Thiem territory. He does not want to go there, and he should not want to go there.

Zverev has shown that he can mop up the field at ATP 500s. What is specific to the Citi Open which doesn’t carry over to some of the other 500s on the ATP Tour, however, is that it comes right before two Masters events. At least the Barcelona 500 tour stop — which Rafael Nadal plays every year — has an off week after it, before the Madrid-Rome double stack. Washington is not followed by an off week preceding Canada-Cincinnati. There are times to pick off that 500 title, and there are times to pass it up in pursuit of bigger fish.

I don’t fault Zverev for wanting to pick off a 500 now, at age 21, but in three years, he can’t schedule the same way.

He has shown he is ready for his bachelor’s degree and graduation from a four-year university. The coming years will be his graduate school course.

He will need to adjust his study plans.

Source: Julian Finney/Getty Images Europe

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