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NADAL, TSITSIPAS, AND THE MEANING OF YOUTH

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

In 1985, a 17-year-old won Wimbledon.

In 1989, a 17-year-old won Roland Garros.

In 1979, a 20-year-old won the U.S. Open.

In 1990, a 19-year-old won the U.S. Open.

In 1975, a 19-year old won his SECOND Roland Garros title.

From Bjorn Borg in the mid-1970s, to John McEnroe, to Boris Becker, to Michael Chang, to Pete Sampras in 1990, men’s tennis produced a number of teenage and 20-year-old major champions. Of those five men I just mentioned, four were largely spent before turning 30. Borg burned out early, and McEnroe’s pilot light as a singles player similarly went out in his mid-20s. He made a few deep runs at majors late in his career, when in his early 30s, but nothing sustained. Chang was not a factor on tour after turning 26. Becker’s last great season was 1996, when he turned 29. Then he relatively quickly faded away. Only Sampras did anything substantial after turning 30, making the 2001 U.S. Open final and then delivering his unforgettable walk-off moment, the 2002 U.S. Open title in the last major he ever played, one month after his 31st birthday.

Yes, there once was a time when hitting 30 years old meant the end of the line — or something very close to it — for a professional tennis player. This was hardly an automatic or fixed rule, but deeper runs were more exceptional and less commonplace.

Early in the Open Era, a lot of the older players who lost anywhere from 5 to 15 years of opportunities at major tournaments wanted to return to Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and Forest Hills. Coinciding with those first years of the Open Era was the fact that three of the four majors were played on grass, and none on hardcourts. Yet, the U.S. Open moved to hardcourt in 1978, and the Australian Open did so a decade later in 1988. Suddenly, the composition of the four majors — and of the tour as a whole — had dramatically changed in ways which made tennis more physical and less comfortable. Hardcourts are much harder on joints and invite more attritional baseline tennis.

Is this why Jimmy Connors’ 1991 U.S. Open semifinal run at age 39 created such a sensation? Is this why Andre Agassi’s post-30 career was so inspirational? No, not entirely, and not even primarily… but the ground had shifted in tennis. Ken Rosewall made the Wimbledon AND U.S. Open finals in 1974 at age 39, and those moments aren’t nearly as celebrated by tennis media outlets — on television or in print — as Connors’ comparatively more modest feat in 1991. Agassi’s run to the 2005 U.S. Open final at age 35 was not ridiculous or absurd, but it was unexpected, and it was also the last great hurrah of his career.

When Agassi played his most consistent tennis after age 30, it seemed to some — if not many — that “old-man tennis” had been redefined for the modern age. Agassi found a sweet spot in terms of training, nutrition, practice habits, and tennis IQ. A career marked by severe shifts in quality — soaring for a few seasons and then cratering, only to repeat the cycle — found stability after 30, not before it. Yet, if Pete Sampras — in 1990 — ended a decade-and-a-half-long period in which teens and 20-year-olds continuously won huge championships, it was hard to think that Agassi’s brilliance in 2005 was ending another decade-and-a-half period in which tennis careers ended fairly early. Agassi’s old-man excellence (in tennis terms) did not seem, at the time, to herald a new age in which elite champions would remain elite well into their 30s.

Here we are, nearly a decade and a half removed from 2005. It took a little longer for this new reality to emerge, but it has arrived: Longevity has in fact been redefined in tennis, such that the greatest players can hit age 32, 35, 37, and still be on top of their game, with few immediate signs of slowing down.

Did Rafael Nadal see himself when he looked across the net at Stefanos Tsitsipas on Sunday in the Toronto final? You would have to ask him that question. Yet, for those of us watching from a press box or — in my case — on television while I cleaned floors and bookshelves in advance of a family dinner with my brother and some of my mother’s friends, the sense of symbolic significance was powerful.

In the same year when Agassi forged his final masterful moments as a tennis player, Rafael Nadal was busy rewriting the book on late-teenage excellence in men’s tennis. He joined Borg (among others) as a teenage winner of the French Open. He piled up Masters titles on clay and showed how durable and consistent he could be.

Chang’s French Open title, as historic and special as it was, turned out to be his only major title. He would not rate as an example of a player who won a teenage major title and become a next-level star. The other examples mentioned earlier in this piece would qualify — Becker, McEnroe, Borg and Sampras all springboarded from their early-age major titles to forge careers with at least six major titles if not more, stuffing their resumes with trophies and laurels.

While Agassi wrote his old-man story of longevity in 2005, Nadal wrote long chapters of the next great late-teen superstar story on the ATP Tour. Novak Djokovic deserves to be included in this discussion — he won the 2008 Australian Open at age 20 and was a consistent factor on tour at that point in time — but Nadal obviously set a higher standard for late-teen quality in the 21st century. The exceptional nature of Nadal’s early-career mastery of tennis has created the question fans love to to ask:

“Who will be the next great young ATP player?”

No, this should not be framed as “The Next Nadal,” because there won’t be — there can’t be — a next Nadal. No one is like him, and no one WILL be like him. In broader terms, however, it is enticing and fascinating to wonder when another very young player will put all the pieces together in this sport.

Sascha Zverev has done so to a degree, but it is plain that he is still learning a lot about how to maximize his game at the majors. He is pointing in the right direction, but steadily, not rapidly, on a slow incline and not a steep one.

Dominic Thiem is 24, soon to turn 25, and he is a clay-court specialist at this point. He has needed a long time just to master the finer points of clay tennis. He remains lost on other surfaces.

Nick Kyrgios? Until he solves his fitness problems, he won’t be a serious contender, in spite of his immense talent.

Borna Coric shows flickers of quality but is nowhere near the top of the sport.

Denis Shapovalov has been knocked back a peg or two in 2018 — not unexpectedly. He has a lot to process.

Emerging from these youngsters in 2018 is Stefanos Tsitsipas. He registered a first big win when he thrashed Thiem on Barcelona clay and made an ATP 500 final against Nadal. Tsitsipas’s game flowed very naturally on clay. He dismantled Shapovalov in Monte Carlo and was a step ahead of same-age peers with similar levels of talent. Thiem avenged the Barcelona loss against Tsitsipas at Roland Garros, but the Greek still made Thiem work for a four-set win which was hardly routine.

Coming from the clay season, it was easy to think that Tsitsipas — who had already exceeded expectations for 2018 by climbing so highly in the rankings — would lose his edge in the process of moving to other surfaces.

Instead, he has not only remained consistent, but improved. His run to the Toronto final — winning four straight matches against top-10 players, three of them in three sets, one of them against Novak Djokovic — is well documented, but it is well worth reminding you that he made the round of 16 at Wimbledon as well. Tsitsipas has done well on three separate surfaces this season, on multiple continents. He has shown that he can win away from his home continent, something Shapovalov — a Canadian — hasn’t done to the same extent. (Shapo made the semis in Madrid, but Madrid is often an outlier when tennis results are discussed.)

Is Tsitsipas — not Zverev, not Shapo, not Kyrgios — the real deal and the true torchbearer for young tennis players in modern times? The question might not be easy to answer, but the question itself is impossible to avoid asking.

When Nadal looked across the net, HE — Rafa — might not have inwardly thought that he was staring both into the future and his own luminous past, but a lot of fans certainly wondered.

Then the match started.

Nadal would have polished off a very routine 2-and-4 victory had he not committed four unforced errors when serving for the match at *5-4 in the third. He won 27 of his first 28 service points on Sunday, an indication of how well he was able to bounce back on short rest after his rain-delayed semifinal win over Karen Khachanov late Saturday (and early Sunday). As was the case with the Kevin Anderson-Novak Djokovic Wimbledon final, one man was very used to making the turnaround from a long or delayed match in the previous round, and the other wasn’t. So it also was in this case.

Yes, Nadal had a much shorter turnaround to this final, but Tsitsipas had never previously endured anything on the scale of what he faced in Toronto, winning a series of long matches in summer sun and heat against elite players. This wasn’t his first ATP final, and it wasn’t even his first ATP final against Nadal, since Barcelona had already checked that box. Yet, the larger experience of managing a full week against top-10 players was new, and it showed.

Nadal had been through this rodeo, Tsitsipas hadn’t. It mattered.

Nadal overcame his hiccup at *5-4, overcame more nervous errors to save a set point, and restored order in the second-set tiebreaker to bring home a 33rd Masters title and 80th overall title. The man who redefined late-teenage excellence in the modern era of men’s tennis prevented his opponent, Tsitsipas, from forging the kind of feat Rafa achieved 13 years ago, in 2005.

Nadal was intent on winning a championship on Sunday. His tunnel-vision focus enables him to focus on the essentials, while fans and commentators discuss the outside details. One of those “outside details” was the reality that Nadal — great in his teens, 20s and 30s — was standing in the way of Tsitsipas, a player intent on catapulting himself into the realm of legitimate stardom.

One could make the case that Tsitsipas is already a star. In Greece, he certainly is. Globally, I’m not sure he meets that definition YET, but I don’t even intend to litigate that question. What I mean to emphasize here is that if Tsitsipas had beaten Nadal to win a FIFTH straight match over a top-10 player and claim a first Masters title on his 20th birthday, the Greek WOULD have become a genuine star on the ATP Tour. He definitely would have had “The Moment” when a young player becomes marked with the sign of greatness, akin to Sascha Zverev beating Djokovic in the 2017 Rome final, or Roger Federer beating Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, just before turning 20.

Nadal wasn’t thinking about the importance of preventing that “Moment” from occurring, but just the same, it remains that Nadal DID prevent that moment, which in turn reinforces how rare and special it is that Nadal mastered so much of tennis before turning 20. Now 32, Nadal is still reflecting that mastery at a fuller and higher level.

How we view youth and how we view older age in tennis have been the central themes of this column. Stefanos Tsitsipas tried to steer the discussion back toward youth in Toronto, but the man who once redefined youthful quality in men’s tennis is now teaching lessons to young pups. He is now the instructor who is reminding us how tough it is to break through as a young man in a sport which is no longer a young man’s game… and must still wait for that next big plot twist which changes the balance of power in men’s tennis.

Source: Chris Hyde/Getty Images AsiaPac

 

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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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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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