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Fedexit — Exploring A Final Act For Federer Which Could Be Far Away

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

I begin with a brief explainer about online sports publishing.

Having edited sports websites — as a site editor (a person in charge of a staff of writers) and as a copy editor (someone who simply polishes the grammar, facts and style of an article without a supervisory role) — I can tell you that writers at websites generally do not apply titles to their own stories. Even when they do, it is still up to the person higher up the food chain — often the site editor, sometimes the executive editor or editor in chief — to approve or amend the title.

On Twitter, I have seen sportswriters explain to readers (at sites other than the ones I worked for) that they didn’t write the titles of the stories. The titles were clickbaity, which created the impression for readers that the story probably was going to be clickbaity. In some cases, the readers never click on the link on Twitter when they see the clickbaity title. In other cases, readers go through the story, understand how reasonable and accurate it is, and wonder to the writer why a mismatched title was chosen. The writer explains: “I didn’t make the title.”

I have the role of site editor for the written half of Tennis With An Accent, as you probably know by now. Saqib Ali is in charge of podcast production and scheduling plus the TWAA Twitter account. Since I am site editor, I am the one who signs off on story titles. In this case, I had to make my own title, since I am the author of the article.

You might wonder why I added “which could be far away” to the end of that title. I offered the explanation above so that you could understand this very point.

I don’t know if Roger Federer’s retirement from tennis is far away or very close at hand. I very firmly believe he will play at least through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but that is merely a belief, not a fact, and not something any ironclad sources or indicators point to. It is all guesswork, and I would be lying to you if I said or suggested otherwise.

I added the words “which could be far away” because if I simply titled the piece “Fedexit — Exploring A Final Act For Federer,” the truncated nature of the title would more directly suggest that Federer’s retirement was imminent and/or recommended. Knowing that readers sometimes look at titles of pieces and refuse to click if they think the title is clickbaity, I felt that the words “which could be far away” would remove or at least reduce the idea that Federer’s retirement was imminent or recommended.

Having offered that explanatory and long preamble — which I hope puts a lot of people’s worries at ease — I can now proceed with the central point of this column, which is to gently explore how Federer orchestrates the final act of his career, whenever that moment comes.

Before I begin, let me segue to that topic by noting a satisfying part of my life: watching the TV series Mad Men.

My most psychologically difficult and stressful decade of life was from my late 20s through my late 30s. (I am currently 42.) I had some severe health episodes, followed by extreme weight loss, then a pair of incidents in which I felt that roommates might threaten my life. Those events generated anxiety attacks and ushered in a decade-long period in which, to varying degrees at various moments, certain sights or recollections would trigger the runaway freight train of anxious, fearful thoughts which gained rent space in my head. It took me about 10 years to fully learn how to make peace with those thoughts and not let them take over my mind.

During that period, Mad Men aired. The show’s portrayal of Don Draper, also in his 30s and restless in his search for peace, could not have been more of a window inside my life, even though Don worked in advertising in New York, a realm completely different from my upbringing in Phoenix and my early-adult years in Seattle. I could totally relate to Don not because of the sex or the fancy lifestyle or the advertising world — I could not be more opposite Don in those respects — but in relationship to the fundamental search and struggle for inner knowing, of self-understanding. For eight years, I saw so much of my inner struggle in Don Draper. By the time the show ended — Sunday, May 17, 2015 — I was no longer an anxious person crushed by worry and a fear of my own thoughts.

I credit the show with anchoring my life in a psychologically difficult time.

Because of my devotion to the show — easily my favorite show ever — I asked to write about it for a website. Part of my coverage naturally dealt with the question: How would this show end? It was a constant point of focus in the final few years of the series. This was my review of the series finale.

I share this because, as a part of my personal story as a tennis writer, Roger Federer is the reason I am here. He is the reason many tennis writers have jobs today. He is a central reason many tennis podcasts are sprouting up. He is the reason TV rights to major tournaments are larger than they were in previous years. He is a main engine behind the growth of prize money at the majors. He got this party started in the Golden Era of men’s professional tennis. He inspired Nadal, who in turn inspired Djokovic, creating 15 years of magic dating back to 2003 which will probably become at least 20 years if one assumes Djokovic will still be playing in 2023. (I do think Nole will still be playing then. We’ll see.)

Federer, as the man who kick-started a lot of tennis blogging and podcasting careers, has a level of significance which requires no explanation. The enormity of his career within the story of tennis means that all the details of his exit as an active singles player — the what, the when, the how, and the why — possess endless amounts of intrigue and will leave a profound emotional imprint on a lot of fans.

Yes, if Federer wins a 21st major, or beats Nadal in another major final, or breaks Jimmy Connors’ record of 109 ATP titles, or becomes World No. 1 at any point in the future, those feats will receive a tidal wave of publicity. Yet, if Federer meets none of those milestones or any other especially large ones, the immensity of his legacy is still secure and impossible to fully capture. We will be able to more fully appreciate Fed — and Rafa, and Novak — 15 years from now. Nevertheless, it remains that if Federer doesn’t do something spectacular in what remains of his career (and I make NO predictions on that front, good or bad), the next big moment is the last one: the exit. Fedexit.

Like Mad Men and Don Draper’s last moment on camera, I ask and I wonder: HOW WILL IT END?

It is like a favorite TV show we have. It has occupied a large part of life. People want it to end well.

It is in that sense I explore this question, not to say or suggest it should happen soon.

So what needs to be said? This is a topic too large to fully address in one column. This is why I have spent so much time explaining the column more than addressing the subject matter directly. There is more to come down the line. This is a first exploration, not a comprehensive “one-and-done” effort.

My initial and foremost thought is a question more than a declaration: What does Federer want to get from his retirement — more precisely, how he plans his last act as an active singles player?

I ask this question because Federer’s desires should dictate how he plans the future.

I am not claiming to know what Federer wants — otherwise I would tell you I know how the final act will unfold. I am merely mapping out a framework in which IF Federer wants X instead of Y, he will follow a path marked Z instead of a path marked V.

Let’s show what that means:

If Federer will very simply adhere to the idea that he will play as long as he feel he can win tournaments, his level of form and results in 2019 could have a large impact on what he does in 2020. If he feels he can still win (big) tournaments, he will play the four majors and an event of some kind before those events as a proper warm-up or lead-in. His number of played tournaments would remain low. Given his Laver Cup commitment and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, it is hard to imagine Fed loading up on tour events if winning the big tournaments is still his top priority.

If Federer thinks he is reaching a point where winning big tournaments seems to slip away as a realistic goal, he could very easily retire. However, this opens up the other basic path for the Swiss in pursuit of Fedexit.

Andrew Burton and plenty of other “Fedologists” (Federer scholars) believe Roger will play Roland Garros once before retirement, probably in his last year on tour. I am inclined to agree, but the Roland Garros question opens up another portal of thought: If Federer would play in Paris one last time as a thank you to French fans, more than as a genuine attempt to win the tournament, it would reflect — at least in isolation — a divergence from the “I play as long as I feel I can win tournaments” philosophy.

What if that divergence is not confined to Roland Garros — whether in 2020, 2021, or beyond that point? I have no idea if such a divergence will occur, but let’s entertain the question. What would Federer’s schedule then look like?

He might then consider a farewell tour in which he visits tour stops he hasn’t been able to make — surely not Vienna, which occupies the same week as Basel, but plenty of others.

Where the Laver Cup is scheduled in 2020 (a non-European location) might have something to do with tour stops Federer visits if 2020 is his last year. If Laver Cup is scheduled for a North American or Asian city, Federer might visit the South American clay tour stops to say goodbyes to a part of the world he has rarely been able to visit within the context of tour life. If Laver Cup does go to South America in 2020, Federer might play Rotterdam again to say goodbye there, and then follow up at the other European clay stops from Monte Carlo to Rome. He would then visit Toronto, a city he hasn’t been able to play in because of the need to rest after Wimbledon. (He of course played Montreal in 2017, but hadn’t previously been there since 2011.)

Federer juggles an enormous amount of obligations in various realms. How he chooses to blend the off-court and on-court aspects of his life and work is a complex equation. In many ways, a final point to note — for now — in this first exploration of “Fedexit” is that Federer will eventually face (in the final year he plays, whenever that year comes) the fundamental tension between competing to win and appearing at tournaments to satisfy and thank fans.

If you know anything about Federer, you know he tries to do both if he possibly can. Playing Rotterdam earlier this year carried the twin benefits of winning a match to become World No. 1 and offering Dutch fans a chance to see him. He won the tournament, satisfying a pair of competing needs and not just one. You can bet that as Federer mulls over how to map out his remaining schedule — whether over two years, or three, or five — he must wrestle with the choice of three basic options: playing to win, playing to give fans a treat, or something in between which tries to do a little of both.

The first option, as discussed above, would not deviate much from his 2017 or 2018 schedules. The second and third options are more unknown. If Federer doesn’t pursue them, this larger drama won’t become more complicated. If he does, though, Federer could create an ending with a plot twist akin to Mad Men.

No, Fedexit might not be near… but after seeing him tweet about 25 years going by on Sunday, following his latest Basel championship, it is obvious he is in a reflective mood. A part of him is recalling memories the way people do when they know they have traveled a very long road. There might be more iconic championship moments on the road which still lies in front of Roger Federer, but we are certainly at a point in time where speculation about the end of that road does not seem misplaced.

If you have ever wondered how your favorite TV show would end, the last act of Roger Federer is certainly a topic you can relate to in the same way that I can relate to Don Draper.

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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ATP Tour

Observations In The Arena — Second Serve

Skip Schwarzman

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Skip Schwarzman

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. 

The O2 Arena for the ATP Finals — Wednesday seats circled in red, compared to Thursday seats from court level. Photo by Skip Schwarzman

*

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.

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ATP Tour

Observations At The O2 — An Up-Close Look At The ATP Finals

Skip Schwarzman

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Kirby Lee - USA TODAY Sports

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.

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ATP Tour

Zverev Gets A Reminder Of The Distance He Must Travel

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

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.

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