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Alexander Zverev embraces affirmation

Matt Zemek

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Eric Bolte - USA TODAY Sports

For many tennis fans and commentators, life slows down in mid-September after the U.S. Open. For the second straight year, Alexander Zverev has gained new inspiration in mid-September, playing high-quality tennis in the final leg of an ATP Tour season.

Laver Cup might not be an important event to you, and it doesn’t have to be. Laver Cup might be an exhibition to you, and it’s perfectly fine for you or anyone else to say so.

What can’t be said about Laver Cup, however, is that it is meaningless to Alexander Zverev, who has powered his way to the final of the Shanghai Masters. He will meet Daniil Medvedev for a Russian-flavored championship battle on Sunday.

Zverev, to be clear, hasn’t merely derived a benefit from PLAYING the Laver Cup; he derived a benefit from WINNING it two years running.

The experience of winning in a highly emotional context, surrounded by other top tennis players giving him encouragement, has plainly filled Zverev’s lungs with competitive oxygen.

Let’s be honest with ourselves and each other: What other event occurred between Zverev’s miserable U.S. Open (the culmination of a miserable year at the major tournaments) and his resurgent Chinese fortnight in Beijing and Shanghai which could possibly explain this 180-degree turnaround?

Let’s be clear: This is not a slight or moderate change in Zverev’s quality. This is — and has been — night and day, a total overturning of what we had seen in the summer.

What was once stormy and dark is now bright and sunny.

What was once passive is now bold and aggressive.

What was once reluctant is now assertive.

What was once ragged and inconsistent is now fluid and relentless.

Zverev is getting everything out of his game: pouring down aces like a waterfall; showing supreme mental toughness by losing a gob of match points to Roger Federer in the quarterfinals but calmly regrouping in a strong third set to win; going after his shots; standing closer to the baseline.

Zverev isn’t just playing well; he is playing the right way.

He isn’t just playing the right way; he is playing the right way with happiness, not the joylessness which marked so much of his season before Laver Cup.

Any year, any tennis season, begins with immense anticipation and the expectations which accompany that sense of excitement.

Alexander Zverev was burdened by those expectations and distracted by off-court dramas. Laver Cup not only gave him refreshment, a subject I addressed last week in Beijing; it gave him the RIGHT KIND of refreshment at the right time.

Tour success is personally achieved and felt. Laver Cup is a communal event unfolding in the embrace of a team. Zverev winning Laver Cup — with his victory — lent a personal quality to his triumph in Geneva, but that personal triumph was accompanied by a team’s success and the affirmation of others in a shared locker room.

Zverev didn’t solely realize he was capable of reclaiming his best self; other people were there, on the journey with him, cheering him along and giving him constructive input. That’s what I mean when I say Zverev received the right kind of refreshment.

It wasn’t just refreshment itself (though that is most fundamentally what Zverev needed); it was refreshment in a package or form which suited Zverev’s specific needs.

Now, he is playing close to the level he exhibited at the 2018 ATP Finals. His Saturday win over Matteo Berrettini — the follow-up to his win over Federer — puts him in excellent position to make the 2019 ATP Finals and defend his title.

Alexander Zverev was getting zero enjoyment out of tennis.

What changed?

The answer could not be any clearer. Many people hate talking about Laver Cup, but that event unlocked the key into Zverev’s formerly burdened mind.

The German isn’t playing burdened tennis anymore. Now everything seems possible for him once again.

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Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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