Go back four years, to August of 2014.
Go back to Toronto for a previous edition of the Rogers Cup.
Go back to the main stadium court for a men’s quarterfinal on a Friday afternoon.
Four years ago, Grigor Dimitrov made the semifinals of Wimbledon. Four years ago, Milos Raonic had also made the semifinals of Wimbledon. Four years ago, Dimitrov and Raonic were both 23 years old, the future mostly in front of them, the “ATP Lost Boys” not yet a punching bag or a sign of crisis on the ATP Tour. Four years ago, the Big Four were still a thing, Stan Wawrinka was beginning to make his ascent, and Novak Djokovic’s remarkably dominant 18-month run (January of 2015 through June of 2016) had not yet begun.
Four years ago, people wondered if Roger Federer was ever going to win an 18th major; a 20th major was far off the radar screen. Four years ago, Tomas Berdych made an Australian Open semifinal. Four years ago, so much was dramatically different about the world of tennis compared to now. It is only four years, and yet in four years, a lot changes.
Of all the changes which have taken place in men’s tennis over four years, several rate as bigger surprises than the turns in the careers of Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov. Andy Murray becoming World No. 1 in 2016 was bigger. So was Federer and Nadal winning six straight majors until Djokovic broke that string this past July at Wimbledon. Yes, other changes have been larger and more resonant in the larger course of tennis history, but the divergent paths of Anderson and Dimitrov are worth noting, since they met in Toronto four years ago and then met again in the same city — in the same stadium, in the same quarterfinal round — on Friday in the 2018 Rogers Cup.
Four years ago, Kevin Anderson hadn’t reached a single major quarterfinal — that was still one year away at the 2015 U.S. Open. Anderson had the raw tools to produce strong results — maybe not major semifinals and finals, but certainly better than what he had shown. In August of 2014, Anderson was John Isner WITHOUT the bunch of Masters semifinal appearances. The version of Anderson which existed in 2014 was — like the version of Isner which existed through early 2018 — a player who should not have been expected to REGULARLY make the semifinal stage of big tournaments, but who should have been able to make those deep runs every now and then, let’s say once a year or at least once every six majors.
Anderson and Isner serve too powerfully and effectively to NOT win stacks of matches in certain segments. Yes, their weaknesses and limitations would expose them most of the year against top-10 players. Again, no one should have expected them to be every-week semifinalists on tour. Yet, the reality that they practically never made major quarterfinals — year after year after year (only one between them through Wimbledon of 2015, and only two through Wimbledon of 2017) — was the true surprise.
SURELY, one would have thought, these mammoth servers would get hot, ride the wave, and make a major quarterfinal twice in a three-year span, an average of one out of every six majors (2 of 12 = 1 of 6, or 16.7 percent). That’s not a GREAT percentage, but it would represent occasional prosperity. That expression — “occasional prosperity” — is what players in Anderson and Isner’s tier should aspire to: not being great all the time due to limitations in court coverage, defense, and full variety from the back of the court, but having substantial weapons to dominate on serve and hit opponents off the court. They won’t generally beat players inside the top 10 and especially the top 5, but they can certainly handle players ranked 11-20 half the time, which is generally what gets a player to the quarterfinals of a major on an occasional basis.
Yet, four years ago, Kevin Anderson hadn’t made one major quarterfinal at age 28. Several months before August of 2014, Stan Wawrinka made his breakthrough in Australia by winning a first major title at age 28 in January. Little did anyone know how much Stan would inspire his ATP peers to awaken from slumber in their late 20s and early 30s. Today, we can see how much of an effect Stan had on other guys in the ATP locker room, but back then, the gradual awakening hadn’t yet spread through much of the tour. Anderson had still not found the keys needed to unlock his talent.
Dimitrov seemed to be on the verge of stepping through the door and entering a fancy new house of tennis success.
It is true that Dimitrov should have won the fourth set against Djokovic in the Wimbledon semifinals. He shouldn’t have won the match, but he should have forced a fifth stanza. That lapse, however, was allowable. The moment was new for Dimitrov, and as said many times in this space, being a young tennis player inevitably brings harsh lessons. The key is to learn what they have to teach. Dimitrov gained the kind of experience a tennis player needs to eventually graduate to the next level. He seemed to be on his way.
Dimitrov’s coping mechanisms were in development back then. He was an open book, soaking up knowledge, and likely — in the estimation of many, including myself — to one day lift a major trophy. Not eight, not 10, not any large number, but at least a few. Dimitrov was building his career and gathering the kinds of “almost moments” which often lead to ultimate triumphs later on.
Dimitrov’s promising outlook and Anderson’s dreary penchant for failing to win important matches were never more starkly apparent than when they met in Toronto those four long years ago.
Anderson won the first set and gained break point in the second set at 5-5, 30-40 on Dimitrov’s serve. Dimitrov came up with a big serve and erased that break point. There was nothing Kando could do about that hold for 6-5. However, when serving to stay in the second set at 5-6, Anderson double-faulted away the set instead of forcing Dimitrov to play. That was a first — and familiar — sign of Anderson’s nerves, as he stood on the precipice of a first Masters 1000 hardcourt semifinal appearance.
Anderson shrugged off that ugly end to the second set and gained double match point on his serve at *5-4, 40-15 in the third. On each of those match points, Anderson hit a strong serve which elicited a short ball from Dimitrov. Both shots were sitters, cream puffs begging to be swatted away into the open court for easy winners. Anderson choked on both, especially the second one at 40-30, standing right over the net and somehow hitting the ball into the twine. At deuce, Anderson made two more very ugly errors to surrender the break of serve.
Anderson picked himself off the canvas again, gaining a 5-4 lead in the final-set tiebreaker several minutes later, on his serve. At *5-4, Dimitrov fell down when returning Anderson’s serve. Anderson just had to sweep the next groundstroke into the deuce corner while Dimitrov struggled to get up on the ad side of the court, but Anderson hit the groundstroke back to the ad corner. Dimitrov retrieved it and won the point for 5-5. Dimitrov then closed out the tiebreaker, 8-6, leaving Anderson wondering how he let that match get away. It was a vintage representation of Anderson’s then-chronic inability to get over the hump. Dimitrov didn’t carry the run of play, but he forced Anderson to answer questions nearly every step of the way, applying enough match pressure to make Anderson think about the moment, which the South African wasn’t good at doing.
Dimitrov made a Masters semifinal in 2014, one which figured to begin a relatively large and fat stack of such appearances. Anderson remained stuck in his mind, trapped in the mental prison of doubt and distrust.
Four years ago, the tennis world appeared to be moving in specific directions for Dimitrov and Anderson, and those two directions could not have been more different.
Fast-forward to this past Friday, four years later.
Dimitrov had won the past five meetings between the two players. All of those matches were close. None were decided in straight sets… but Grigor regularly prevailed. If you watched the 2014 Toronto quarterfinal and then didn’t follow men’s tennis for the next four years, you would not have been surprised at all by that fact. Yet, outside of his control of Anderson in tight scoreboard situations, Dimitrov spent the next four years faltering quite often in those scenarios. There were occasional exceptions, particularly in his strong 2017 season, but for the most part, the growth and development which were evident in Dimitrov in 2014 did not lead to a continued process of evolution.
Dimitrov has indeed transformed his level of physical fitness. Few players on tour are more able-bodied than Dimitrov, who outlasted Jared Donaldson 10-8 in the fifth set at Roland Garros earlier this year and told reporters after the match that he was ready to play a few more hours if necessary. Yet, for all the physical fitness Dimitrov has demonstrated, his mental game lies in disrepair. He double faults frequently in pressure games (such as 4-5 or 5-6 when serving to stay in a set). His shots break down in important moments. He doesn’t move his feet on returns and gets caught flat-footed. He is a fleet-footed athlete, but the split-second delays in reactions and response are testament to the nerves which weigh him down. The 23-year-old who was climbing the ladder didn’t continue to ascend to a greater height. 2017 had its moments, but his two signature accomplishments that year — the Cincinnati Masters title and ATP Finals championship — occurred against the backdrop of a depleted field, with no Djokovic, Murray or Wawrinka in the way and (in Cincinnati) weather creating a backlogged schedule which left many other players tired. The 2018 season would tell us if a Dimitrov resurgence was real; the verdict could not be any clearer as we sit here in August.
Then consider what has happened to Dimitrov’s opponent on Friday in Toronto. Kevin Anderson was fortunate to have avoided Alexander Zverev at the 2017 U.S. Open. He got a dream draw. To his credit, he took advantage of it and made his first major final. Nevertheless, it was easy to chalk up that run to a boatload of good fortune and the same attritional forces which enabled Dimitrov to win Cincinnati and the ATP Finals. Anderson, like Dimitrov, entered 2018 with a target on his back and a lot to prove to his doubters.
Unlike Dimitrov, Anderson has not merely started a climb to a higher level of relevance and success; he has scaled some jagged rock formations at very lofty elevations.
Anderson busted down the door of a first Masters semifinal on clay in Madrid, but that was merely a warm-up act. He handled an in-form Gael Monfils in the fourth round of Wimbledon to make his third career major quarterfinal. When he fell behind by two sets to Federer in the quarterfinals, it seemed his run was over, but then Kando steeled himself, as though he wanted to declare to all the world that he was more — much more — than “the guy who got the lucky draw at the U.S. Open.”
Anderson fought off a match point against Federer, swiped the third set, dominated the fourth set, dug out of a few 0-30 holes on serve in a tense fifth set, and won 13-11 in a prolonged struggle. Knocking Federer out of Wimbledon after trailing by two sets? The 2014 version of Anderson could not have thought that was possible. The 2018 version did… and the 2018 version was so newly fortified with inner belief that he then outlasted Isner in a match exceeding six and a half hours in length. Anderson was toasted by the time he faced Djokovic in his first Wimbledon final, but by making a second major final, Anderson promptly removed the “one-hit wonder” label from his back, changing the way the locker room and the rest of the sport thought about him.
Grigor Dimitrov has more natural talent than Kevin Anderson. His shots flow more easily and contain more variety. Grigor can cover the court more effectively and perform better from defensive positions. Dimitrov has more touch and slice. He might not be great at net, but Anderson is worse. Anderson has a better serve and return, but on a larger overall level, Dimitrov possesses more raw tennis skills. If both players play to their full potential, Dimitrov should be the one who wins.
Yet, these four years after that Toronto meeting in which Anderson’s mental block was so profound, here were these two men — reunited again on Canadian soil in a Masters quarterfinal. Their identities could not have undergone more of an overhaul.
Anderson was the one hitting fluidly and cleanly. Anderson controlled the court and dominated the internal battle of clarity, concentration and confidence. Whereas the 2014 Toronto match featured three razor-close sets, Anderson put his boot on Dimitrov’s throat early in each set on Friday. He roared to an easy 6-2, 6-2 win without the slightest hint of a hiccup.
One man had become liberated, the other receding into helplessness. If you remember the 2014 Toronto quarterfinal, you would have sworn that Dimitrov would be the high flyer in 2018, and that Anderson would be the man left muttering to himself in the corner and on changeovers.
It is only four years, but it is striking to recall Toronto in August of 2014 and absorb how much the careers of Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov have veered in decidedly unexpected directions.
Source: Michael Reaves/Getty Images North America
Observations In The Arena — Second Serve
You saw the photo of the escalator outside the O2 Arena – that’s the cover photo for this story. More on that here:
Consider the value of being No. 1. How much must Lacoste have paid to get every advertisement on the escalator leading up to the O2 from the Tube? It’s Nole Nole Nole as you ride up…
This is what it was like for me on Day Two — my second day, not the players’ second day — at the O2.
First off: Wednesday we were in seats that were literally the highest in the O2, farther away from the court than any others. Behind us lay nothing. On Thursday we were in row D, five rows up from the court, almost directly behind one of the player benches. Wednesday’s view was macro in the extreme, not terrible but certainly not visceral. Thursday’s seats let us understand the speed and spin of the shotmaking, while giving up some understanding of all the angles.
I’ll take Thursday’s perches, thank you very much.
While we’re talking about our seats, and in light of the ATP’s new logo meant to appeal to a younger demographic (really?), how about changing one aspect of tennis’s traditional rules? I’m no burn-down-the-house radical, far from it, but it’s just silly that folks in the nosebleed seats, as we were Wednesday night, can’t come and go during play. Nearer to the court? Yeah, I get it and agree with it: no moving about and reasonable silence. But when you’re so high up that clouds are floating between you and the rows below, I think it’s safe for ticket buyers to take their seats during points, move about, and even leave to get a beer.
The fact is that if they had used binoculars the players couldn’t have seen us last night. Hey ATP, want to attract the casual sports fan? Let him or her move around some in the remote seats. It ain’t no big thing. Really.
Now, to the day’s play on Thursday.
Tennis-specific observations are in regular print. Non-tennis observations are in italics.
On with the show:
First, the doubles:
Both members of the two teams were dressed more or less like their partners, and the color schemes of the two teams were clearly different from each other. This works great for television. Bravo.
Back to television once again: Make no mistake, even when a player appears to be slightly built on TV, the odds are he is not in real life. Jamie Murray gives the television impression of being rather skinny and lightweight. He’s not. He’s 6-foot-3 and, well, okay, 185 pounds — not a WWF specimen, but not small. None of these guys are small. Kontinen and Peers are more barrel-chested than Murray and Soares, but nobody’s NOT bigger than average, and by a good margin.
Murray got a code violation for language, but only when the baseline judge walkedup to the chair and reported Murray’s offending speech, which was probably heard by no one but Murray, the lines judge, and three spectators. That got Murray’s goat but didn’t deter him from carrying on. Still, it’s rather silly to take the rules so far.
(Editor’s Note: Insert Carlos Ramos talking point here, positive or negative. — Matt )
The match pitted a reaction-based team versus a power team. None of the four players are slow, and all of them can hit the ball hard, but overall it’s fair to break down the dynamic that way. Murray-Soares basically say, “We dare you to challenge our reflexes.” Kontinen-Peers tried that, hoping to hit through the No. 3 seeds, but fell in the match tiebreak, 10-2. Murray-Soares finished the round-robin part of the tourney unbeaten.
Now, to the singles:
Due to IT issues I missed much of the first set. According to my friend Graham, it was a story of Kei Nishikori being AWOL: 23 unforced errors and just not looking sharp. Almost four unforced errors per game is definitely not Kei’s standard operating procedure, so either Thiem was on hyperdrive or Nishikori was out of sorts. Graham assures me it’s the latter.
As to how the Japanese player is looking, his kit is an improvement over the not-quite-coordinated outfit from when I last saw him. His racquet is something new: I don’t think it’s one of Wilson’s camo frames, but maybe. It’s a golden, slightly shiny brown. Japanese market only? Anyway, it goes well with his clothing.
We note that Thiem frequently goes counterintuitive and moves back to return second serves, taking a huuuuge cut at the ball. And by “moves back,” I mean he stands 18 feet behind the baseline. Graham wonders if Thiem actually practices doing that.
Nishikori made various pushes to try to bring the match level, but overall the second set feels like Thiem’s to lose. To finish one rally the Austrian hit a backhand down the line so hard — so so so hard — that all you can do is laugh out loud. It’s amazing to see.
Having posted only a 43-percent first-serve rate in the first set, Nishikori did begin some brilliant tactical serving: He started mixing up 96-mph first serves with others at 120, and it paid dividends in some unforced (sic) return errors from Thiem.
On the slower serves it’s as though Kei was starting a 21-out-of-the-hand point – “Okay, I’ll get it in play and then we rally out the point, yeah?” – since Thiem isn’t trying to attack on the slower deliveries or, more to the tactical point, is put off by the variety of serves he’s seeing. Going on the offensive is harder to do in such a situation.
As a measure of how hard Nishikori tries to right the ship, note that he served and volleyed twice at 2-2 in the second set, when he had to work hard to hold. After the first attempt we scratched our heads – “If you won doing that, why wouldn’t you do it more often?” – and then he did it a second time, winning both with some truly fine volleying.
I applaud him for it. You have to believe that when a player has reached the top 10 his game is pretty set, and an established reflection of his personality. For Nishikori to add serve and volley to his game, successfully — and even on the occasional point as a tactical variation — is deserving of credit.
The second set did provide a wide variety of shotmaking; explosive blasts from Thiem, lightning bolts of flat winners from Kei, drop shots, quick exchanges with both of them at the net, and a “Wowza!” backhand smash from Nishikori. There was not enough from Nishikori’s side of the ledger, however. He just seemed out of sorts. Serving at 4-4, 40-30, with Thiem again standing 18 feet behind the baseline for a second serve, Kei double faulted to let Thiem serve for the match, which he did, finishing with a super impressive 30-0 point and then an ace.
Neither this match nor the previous night’s Isner-Cilic tussle achieved the status of being top-shelf matches, but they both had fine episodes. It occurs that matches achieve great status through sustained momentum on the part of both players, long stretches where neither breaks the narrative of successful hitting with silly or unforced mistakes. Absent that, we spectators can enjoy some fine moments, and we have, but we’re hoping to catch a battle that rewards us with some transcendence.
Observations At The O2 — An Up-Close Look At The ATP Finals
I am in London for the ATP World Tour Finals (I refuse to type the acronym, believing some marketing person should be written up for that socially inappropriate three-letter reference), joining up with friends Graham and Alan who are down from Scotland. All of us taught tennis together a long time ago – Alan and I first met over 40 years ago – and we all still play a reasonable level of club tennis. We like to believe we bring old-school virtues melded to an understanding of modern tennis techniques and trends. Please do not disabuse us of that belief, dear reader.
What follows are impressions and observations from the matches we are seeing at the O2. By the time you read these the score lines will be known, so while the outcomes will be discussed, what matters more are the routes taken to the W, and the L, by the players. The final scores won’t be the point. There’s always more happening on and around a tennis court than simply who managed to hit the last ball inside the lines.
The tennis observations I make below are in regular-format print. The non-tennis observations I make are in italicized print.
Let’s have some fun:
Years ago I attended some exhibition matches at Caesar’s Palace Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., in the United States; Sampras, Roddick, Safin, Lendl, Wilander, a mishmash of eras, styles, and states of professional decorum. To begin, the players were escorted onto the courts by actors dressed as Roman Centurions and Centurionettes (sorry, don’t know another word). There was some smoke, too. That show couldn’t hold a candle to the opening at the O2.
“Over the top” doesn’t begin to do it justice. I think the words “hero” and “legend” were tossed about a few times by the “voice of God” announcer. Think “Get ready to rumble!” mixed with the light show at a Pink Floyd concert and you get the idea.
The ball kids were introduced as a group. Really. They got to stand at attention in two groups, in spotlights, before dutifully running to their appointed stations. Carlos Bernardes, the international umpire, was introduced, and the lines judges got a mass introduction as well. It’s nice, actually, but certainly way different from a traditional match atmosphere.
Isner came out firing on all cylinders. His first couple of serves were 135 and 136, and while he didn’t break Cilic’s first service game, he threatened. They were both pounding the ball.
Pete Bodo, the American tennis journalist, has written that big hitters who are not great movers often find success on slower courts, however counterintuitive that might be. Bodo’s reasoning is that the slower court gives them the time to track down balls and get set up to drop the hammer; Andriy Medvedev’s (1999) and Samantha Stosur’s (2010) French Open final offer relevant examples… as does Isner’s own record at the French.
That makes me wonder if Isner’s strategy on these courts, generally regarded as being quick if not fast, is to strike first and avoid getting into rallies with Cilic. Isner is big, really big, and there’s no way he can scoot coast to coast chasing multiple skidding balls per point. He has to go nuclear, and he did so well enough to take the first set.
I’m taking notes on my smartphone during the match. What does it say about celebrity, technology, and tennis’s place in society when spellcheck corrects for “Federer,” but for “Cilic” routinely gives me the word “Colic”?
Slowly, seemingly inexorably, the momentum shifted towards Cilic. There were more shots per point, and Isner’s serve wobbled a little. Cilic broke when receiving at 3-4 as Isner double faulted on game point. Later in the match, when Isner lost his serve again with a double fault, he threw his racquet down, perhaps in a failed attempt to bounce it back up into his hand, and got a code violation (as he should have). But right after that the O2 showed a replay on the big screens of Isner chucking his stick, highlighting it. Mixed message, no?
Looking around the O2 you see Nitto’s name everywhere. It’s an interesting sponsorship. I know of the company because it is involved in the cycling world, specifically manufacturing parts. However, in what way is Nitto otherwise known to the general public? None that I know of; Jane and John Doe have no way to actively support Nitto, yet they believe there’s value in backing the ATP Finals. Is the Japanese firm laying the groundwork for a bigger presentation at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
Cilic took the second set, and both players started the third with rather meek service games. Overall, however, Cilic was more stable and successfully assertive. He clearly began to read Isner’s serve better and better, going so far as to crack one return winner off a 140-mph Isner delivery.
Chicken, or egg? Did Isner’s serving bombardment weaken because he lost some rhythm, or because Cilic made a few good returns and that got into Isner’s head? A little of both? We’ll never know, but it demonstrates why the best players know to press on with as little letup as possible when they’re behind, or struggling; you never know what will tip the scales in your favor.
Conversely, with Cilic serving a break up at 4-3, on the deuce point Isner got a forehand return to hit and chipped it back to the center of the court. Hey, I get it: Make your return. But given that if Cilic took that game he would have had two chances (at 5-3) to close out the match, Isner couldn’t afford to be that passive. He paid the price. The Croatian ripped a mid-court forehand for ad-in, and while Isner held at 3-5, Cilic served it out decisively for the win, 6-7 (2), 6-3 6-4.
— A few words about the doubles, in which Herbert-Mahut defeated Melo-Kubot in straights.
A lot has been written already about the speed of the court, or lack of it, and we can get into that in a later post, but it seems it’s too quick a surface for Melo and Kubot to work their magic. They are the higher-ranked team, after all, so one would have expected at least a closer contest, but it never developed. From our perch (literally at the uppermost seats possible), it appears the French duo sport more all-around games better suited to the fast conditions.
Mahut and Herbert also kept their play focused on Kubot — the weaker player, or perhaps injured slightly? At one stage in the second set, after having been broken to start, he netted a 115-mph first serve and then double faulted, again into the net, with a 105 second-serve attempt. Shoulder problems? Maybe. He served bigger later on, but missed a few high volleys, too. All in all the French were just too solid.
Skip Schwarzman is an ex-USPTA teaching pro who started playing when Rod Laver was king. (In fact, Laver is still king.) Teaching gigs included Philadelphia; Fribourg and Romont, Switzerland; and Oxford, England. I first learned to teach from Mr. Frank X. Brennan, Sr., coach of Billie Jean King, who taught us that if we were good players we would be welcome all over the world. He was right, as usual.
Zverev Gets A Reminder Of The Distance He Must Travel
Tennis, as I am fond of saying, is a dialogue. Most sports — golf being a conspicuous exception — involve the push and pull of one side’s reactions to the other. From this tension between two competitors comes the complex and often counterintuitive reality of sports: You can play better on one day and still lose. On the other side of the coin, you can play worse on another day and still win. Your opponent might be the bigger and more important variable.
Such has been the case for Alexander Zverev at the 2018 ATP Finals.
All things considered, Zverev has played two relatively similar matches in London. He defeated a player who is chronically unable to raise his game at the ATP Finals. He lost to a player who almost always finds solutions at the same tournament.
Zverev defeated Marin Cilic, who — entering Wednesday, before his match against John Isner — had won only one match in London in four ATP Finals appearances. Zverev then lost to Novak Djokovic, who has won five ATP Finals championships and is steamrolling toward his sixth.
The opponent was the main variable.
This does not, however, mean Zverev had no say in the Djokovic match. It also doesn’t mean Sascha has Zvery little to worry about. He has PLENTY of work to do in the coming offseason, regardless of whether he advances to the semifinals this weekend.
I begin nearly every discussion of Zverev these days with the reminder/disclaimer that Sascha’s career is still well AHEAD of schedule. No NextGen player has made more consistent or substantial advances than Zverev. He is a stone-cold rock of reliability at Masters 1000 tournaments. Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, Kevin Anderson, and other high-quality players in their early 30s have spent many years struggling how to find the special sauce of success at Masters 1000s. Zverev already owns three M-1000 trophies and made seven quarterfinals this year at that level of the ATP Tour.
Zverev’s challenge is to walk over the hot coals of pressure in the biggest matches at the biggest tournaments against the best players. He handled Cilic in match one, but Djokovic — as usual — set the much higher standard in match two. Much of what happened on Wednesday was the product of the World No. 1 remaining supremely steady in important moments, but at least some of the day’s decisive developments came from Zverev’s inability to pounce… and his subsequent failure to handle that disappointment. From this realization comes a fascinating detail about Sascha’s journey at these ATP Finals.
Anyone and everyone who watched the Djokovic match could pinpoint the moment this match turned. Zverev had multiple break points at 4-4 in the first set and could not convert them. His failure to break in that ninth game of the match flowed in part from an inability to attack vulnerable second serves. Yet, those kinds of moments happen for all tennis players. No one plays several years on tour without enduring those frustrations. We saw Djokovic deal with that frustration in his Bercy semifinal against Roger Federer, in which he went 0 for 12 on break points.
Djokovic, though, kept holding serve throughout the third set of that match, despite failing to gain a decisive lead. Most players would have allowed the accumulation of missed chances to get to them, creating a very familiar Federer escape.
Djokovic isn’t most players. He is a standard of success unto himself.
Sascha might have been Zvery close to winning the first set against Djokovic on Wednesday, but as the saying goes, “So close, and yet so far away.” The small margins in tennis look like the Grand Canyon when one sees the vast difference between two athletes’ responses to scoreboard pressure and high-stakes tournaments.
Ivan Lendl knows how poorly Zverev responded to that ninth-game failure to break Djokovic. That’s exactly the kind of situation Lendl himself failed to handle in the biggest moments against Jimmy Connors (especially at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon) before he finally turned the corner in 1984 and 1985. That’s the real-world experience Team Zverev is counting on Lendl to impart to Sascha, as this coaching relationship tries to take root and bear fruit in the coming offseason.
Zverev’s bright start on Wednesday, followed by his abrupt fall off a cliff in the second set, inverted his performance against Cilic two days earlier. In the Cilic match, Zverev started the match as a dead fish, with Cilic having a sitter forehand for 5-1 but somehow missing it. Zverev battled back, but even then, Cilic’s failure to challenge a call at 5-4 and deuce prevented the Croatian from getting a set point on Zverev’s serve. Cilic played a terrible service game at 5-3 to enable the set to continue.
Zverev wasn’t very good in that first set, but as soon as he stole it in a tiebreaker, he played and served a lot more freely in the second set. Wednesday’s match against Djokovic was exactly the opposite.
Zverev very plainly knew how to run with good fortune in a first set, and didn’t know how to confront adversity at the end of a first set two days later. In both matches, he played one set well and one set poorly. The results were different — the opponent was indeed the main variable — but the inconsistent performances were the same.
Establishing a higher ceiling is part of a young athlete’s task. Lendl beefing up the Zverev forehand and improving the German’s footwork is how that process will occur. Yet, in the pursuit of raising a ceiling, one cannot forget the equally important need for a young athlete to raise his floor as well.
Raising a ceiling is needed to beat the best players in terms of skill and raw athletic prowess. Raising a floor is much more in the province of the mental game, because the mental giants in any sport are able to win even when they are struggling. Mental strength shows up the most when the shots aren’t flowing and the opponent is resolute in offering resistance. Personal struggles against an opponent who demands persistence create a supreme test for an athlete.
Cilic doesn’t demand persistence — he will donate a key game late in a set against elite players. Djokovic always demands persistence. He gives virtually nothing away.
The first set against Djokovic might have been Zvery close on Wednesday, but it showed Sascha just how much growing, learning and internalizing he must do under Lendl’s watch to grow into the even more complete player he hopes to become.