It wasn’t supposed to end this way for Alexander Zverev and Ivan Lendl, but it did. As soon as Lendl’s golf conversations made their way into the press, Thursday’s story seemed inevitable… and it was.
This coaching relationship was not without its successes. Zverev’s wins over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at the 2018 ATP Finals represented a defining demonstration of the German’s abilities when he is locked in and flourishing.
Zverev was a fierce competitor that weekend in London, literally (on the baseline) and figuratively ceding no territory at all. It was a stand-your-ground display which marked Lendl the player at his combative best.
It was — for a brief time — an example of a coach’s mentality rubbing off on a player. Great coaches manage to infuse the best parts of their identity into the athletes they coach, even while the athletes remain themselves, secure in their own ways and confident due to their own self-belief. Great coaches don’t erode athletes’ natural gifts. They allow the best qualities of athletes to remain intact while adding insights and details which enable the athlete to access even more resources and solutions.
Zverev at the 2018 ATP Finals made the improvements one could readily associate with Ivan Lendl.
So why did this partnership die, and what can we learn from it?
The lesson is not obvious the way a punch in the face is. It is subtle, like a seemingly mild Mexican or Thai dish which has a late kick — it isn’t supremely spicy when first tasted, but becomes more textured after downing that initial bite.
I don’t think the lesson is that Lendl and Zverev weren’t made for each other. Some partnerships fail not because the pair was mismatched, but because the timing or circumstances weren’t right. This is the latter.
It is not a secret that Zverev’s off-court life has been a mess this year, for reasons beyond his control. He didn’t invite or want these distractions, but they were there, and it’s hard to know how to handle this kind of storm the first time around.
If Lendl and Zverev had a second chance, they might have decided to take a complete break during these difficult times for the player, and reconnect when it was clear that the off-court disruptions. Instead, they tried to soldier through the bad times… and now they won’t have that second chance.
This was not a bad set of decisions. This was a set of decisions made under imperfect circumstances that didn’t work out well. There’s a lot of daylight between those two worlds. If Zverev had a calm and completely undisturbed off-court life the past 10 months, and these specific (non-)results had still emerged, we could say that Lendl and Zverev were (more of) a mismatched pair.
As things are — and were — I don’t think such a clear-cut conclusion is warranted.
So what is the lesson, the takeaway, the epiphany to carry from this now-ended partnership?
Many answers are valid. My specific answer is that coaching partnerships need time to develop and constantly thwart expectations, for better or worse.
Novak Djokovic-Boris Becker was far better than most people (myself included) expected.
Andre Agassi’s forays into coaching or consultancy have not created the level of transformation many anticipated.
Recent coaching changes involving Venus Williams, Naomi Osaka, and Sloane Stephens (whether the player wanted them or not) all threw curveballs to many people who follow tennis.
These relationships between players and coaches aren’t linear. They aren’t generally stable. Toni Nadal, Marian Vajda, and Severin Luthi are exceptional figures, not the norm.
Given this landscape of instability, it shouldn’t be viewed as automatic that relationships will or won’t work. We all have our opinions and expectations, but we all have to allow for the possibility that our expectations will be confounded.
This allowance makes us appreciate when coach-player combinations deliver on (and exceed) their promise and potential. These aren’t preordained stories. They run their course and often require bumps in the road before reaching their absolute height — see Simona Halep and Darren Cahill.
Zverev and Lendl was the inverse of Halep-Cahill: It had its moments of success but then descended into barrenness and, ultimately, separation.
This Zverev-Lendl divorce is not a thunderbolt. It is more a quiet reminder of how tricky and non-linear these player-coach relationships often are in tennis.