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Alexander Zverev is the Toronto Maple Leafs of men’s tennis

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

I know I am going to get tagged for that title. I don’t care. I like the comparison. I think it contains a highly salient truth about Alexander Zverev at this moment in his career.

Remember: Writers and publishers are always trying to get readers to click on articles, but interesting titles or bold tweets presenting written content used to have a label before the term “clickbait” entered the popular lexicon. That term was either a “teaser” or a “grabber” or a “hook.” Writers write to be read. Promoting work in that honest, organic context doesn’t strike me as clickbait, even though — definitionally — one can certainly make the case.

To me, clickbait — to the extent that it is problematic and harmful in the media realm — involves the use of garbage content lacking in nutritional, substantive value. Content selection exists at the essence and heart of clickbait as a cancer on content production and journalism today.

To the extent that “clickbait” is harmful in a title of a story or the presentation of content in a tweet, the content must be misleading. If I write a modest article but give it an incendiary title or compose a ridiculously dramatic tweet which does not reflect the content of what the article said, I am luring you, the reader, into an article under false pretenses. To me, that’s what clickbait is when referring to the title of a story or the presentation and framing of the story in a tweet.

So, with all of that in mind, I don’t think that analogizing Alexander Zverev to the Toronto Maple Leafs is clickbaity. It’s a teaser or grabber. The substance of this column will exist in natural harmony with the title. There will be no disconnect between the title and the story itself.

Here we go:

The Toronto Maple Leafs get a lot of media attention. They have big-name players who are relatively young. Huge things are expected of them. They have won plenty of hockey games the past two regular seasons.

Yet, they haven’t won an NHL playoff series in that time under a coach who has a considerable reputation built over many years, and whom people feel must re-prove himself.

Alexander Zverev, who lost to Jaume Munar earlier this week in Marrakech, gets the media attention. He is a big name. He is young. He carries massive expectations. He has won a lot of tennis matches the past 24 months. Yet, he hasn’t made a major semifinal. People are wondering if coach Ivan Lendl — the tennis equivalent of Mike Babcock — is losing his magic touch.

Zverev knows the score, much as the Maple Leafs do. Zverev has been bombarded by questions about his major-tournament performance, much as the Maple Leafs have been buried by questions about their readiness for the playoffs.

The tennis player here and the hockey team there both know how they can change the way they are perceived, and there is only one way to do it: by winning at the most important times of the year.

The Maple Leafs were not especially strong during the regular season. Some will say the players underachieved. Some will say Babcock didn’t coach very well. I don’t have a strong verdict on those points since I don’t know much about ice hockey.

What I do know is that Toronto could have won all of its 82 regular-season games, and little would have changed regarding the perception of the Leafs. Winning in the playoffs is all that matters, much as winning at the majors is the one thing Alexander Zverev has to show to himself, to Ivan Lendl, and to the tennis world.

Yes, professionals show up for work all the time and deliver consistency, but Alexander Zverev has already done that. Remember Munich-Madrid-Rome last year, with three finals and two titles in three straight weeks?

I don’t know if Zverev is bored right now — that’s probably not the right word — but it is hard to think that these next few events before Roland Garros are the defining events of his 2019 season.

It’s Roland Garros, then Wimbledon, then the U.S. Open, three majors played in 3.5 months.

The Maple Leafs — for those who follow hockey — looked like a completely reborn team in Game 1 of the playoffs against the Boston Bruins. It was as though they were focused all along on merely making the playoffs — doing the bare minimum to get there — and then roaring into life once the playoffs started. Whether they do well in the playoffs remains an open question, but the focus on the playoffs is hard to ignore.

Zverev seems to be in a similar mental place: Smaller tournaments just don’t matter right now. Zverev is waiting for his own version of Game 1 of the NHL playoffs: his first match at Roland Garros.

Zverev and the Maple Leafs: The comparison isn’t nearly as crazy as it might have first sounded.

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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