JANE VOIGT — @downthetee
Predicting the Grand Slam future of any tennis players is, of course, a roll of the dice. However, the chances that Alexander Zverev will win a Grand Slam tournament in 2019 spiked Sunday, when he took down five-time champion and world number one Novak Djokovic in the final of the Nitto ATP Finals in London, 6-4, 6-3. The outcome was not predicted, especially against what has become the toughest opponent on tour since Wimbledon.
Nonetheless, the 21-year-old Zverev showed massive mental strength, a forehand that packed much more of a punch than it had even a month ago, and court positioning closer to the baseline which gave him split-second opportunities to syphon time away from Djokovic’s strokes, tactics and comfort.
But here’s the kicker. Zverev defeated Roger Federer in the semifinals to earn the right to play Djokovic. Federer has won the year-ending ATP extravaganza six times. That the six-foot-six German put away both these men, with a combined Grand Slam trophy case of 34, in two days amounts to a dose of confidence in himself, his team, and new coach Ivan Lendl that could push him over the line come 2019.
Sport pundits have admitted for well over a year that Zverev would win a Grand Slam event. This year he got closer, scoring a quarterfinal run at Roland Garros. But his propensity to drag out five-set matches undermined any real shot at a major. Lendl was probably the man on Zverev’s team who suggested he get himself on or close to the baseline. Lendl was probably the one who suggested that Zverev trust himself enough to come to the net and put points away. Put sets away. Get on with it, man.
If that was the case and Zverev paid that much attention to implement those coaching suggestions, then he is ready to head to the top of the Grand Slam class.
ANDREW BURTON – @burtonad
He was only in his early 20s, but a lot had been expected from him for years. It was his second time among the game’s top eight players; now on successive days he took out the crowd favorite in the semifinal and the veteran in his 30s (whom he had already played in the round-robin stage) in the final. The ATP had a bright new star. Would his rise continue next year?
Next year would be 2004, and the answer, emphatically, was yes.
Roger Federer would use his 2003 Houston win to start a four-year sequence in which he won 11 majors, three of them in 2004. By 2005 Federer was seen as a possible “greatest ever” candidate. He had actually won his first major earlier in 2003 at Wimbledon, but he certainly wasn’t the main attraction in Houston. Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick (who had also won majors in 2003) were cheered on by the Texas crowd and tournament promoter “Mattress Mac” Jim McIngvale.
McIngvale almost ignored Federer during the trophy ceremony, smarting at what he saw as interview slights from the young Swiss about the facilities at McIngvale’s club. By November of 2004, when Federer was unquestionably the biggest star in the men’s game, the two men made up and McIngvale hosted a lunch for Federer and former President and First Lady George and Barbara Bush at the club. (Bush, a Houstonian, had been a former star tennis player in his younger days.)
Is that future also in store for Sascha Zverev? Probably not quite yet. Unlike Federer, Zverev hasn’t won a major yet: His best result is a single quarterfinal at Roland Garros earlier this year. Zverev had a decent 2018, ending fourth in the rankings: Apart from the London title, he won a M-1000 in Madrid, a 500 in Washington, and a 250 in Munich, and was a finalist in two M-1000s in Miami and Rome. Zverev went 58-19 in 2018: in 2003 Federer was 78-17.
The case for Zverev is straightforward. He’s a prototypical late-2010s top ATP player, listed at the same height (6-6) as Juan Martin del Potro but with more fluid movement. Saturday, during his defeat of Federer, I said that Zverev reminded me of a more polished Tomas Berdych. At 21, he’s far and away the most accomplished young player, with many more big titles to come. His win Sunday made him the fourth player to beat Federer and Novak Djokovic in a semifinal and final after Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and David Nalbandian. That’s pretty good company.
But the case against (in 2019 alone) is also fairly simple to write. Zverev has yet to master the seven-match format at majors, which rewards doing just enough in the early rounds to arrive in the second week with a near-full physical and mental tank. Yes, he made the quarterfinals in Paris this spring, but he came back from two sets to one down in his three prior matches, and he had nothing left against Dominic Thiem. Earlier this week I wrote that Zverev is capable of playing aggressively, but tends to prefer playing conservatively. In the Montreal final in 2017, he took the game to Federer from the first ball: I’d love to see him do that more often.
Will he win a major in 2019? It’s a definite “maybe” from me: If pressed I’d say a 35-percent probability.
Success comes to players later in the 2010s than it did in the 2000s or the 1990s. Maybe 21 is the new 18 or 19. Maybe 2019, and 2020, and 2021, and 2022 – and beyond – will belong to Sascha Zverev.
If it does, I promise I will tell you that I didn’t see it coming. Just as I didn’t in 2004.
MERT ERTUNGA – @MertovsTDesk
I hate to be the unenthusiastic one here, but winning a major — playing best-of-five matches — is a different level of challenge than the one Zverev had to overcome at the O2 Arena. And the one at O2 Arena was a first for him. In the wake of dream runs like the one Sascha just had in London, we tend to forget how young and still new he is to the tennis arena. I would feel a lot more comfortable about Zverev’s chances of winning a major in 2019 had he reached more than one quarterfinal in the last two years, or even went past one.
Having said that, there is no reason why that could not occur next year, but it would need to be the result of a gradual process that takes place during the first half of the year, with no injury involvement. Honestly, I do not see it happening in Australia due to what I noted above. Assuming he still has a successful Australian Open, then we can turn our attention to the next three majors. Roland Garros will be extremely difficult to win if both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are healthy and in form.
Wimbledon could be his closest (in terms of time) chance to winning the title depending on who shows up and in what form. That will be six months into the 2019 season and Sascha may have built some serious confidence by then, riding great results from earlier in the year to complement the O2 title. With his big serve and acceleration skills, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open appear to me as the two possibilities. Having said that, my definition of “possibility” in this specific context is closer to what a glimmer of “maybe” represents in a pitch-dark “unlikely.” I am not saying nay, but I am recommending cautious enthusiasm.
MATT ZEMEK – @mzemek
Sascha Zverev will win a major… but not next year.
I firmly believed Zverev would one day lift one of the most prestigious trophies in tennis when he dispatched Novak Djokovic in a final – the 2017 Rome final. Zverev was so clinical and unbothered that day. Even though we know in hindsight that Djokovic was not 100-percent physically fit, it remained that Zverev handled a high-stress occasion with great poise and levelheadedness. That outlook came back to the forefront of my mind when watching him control long rallies against Djokovic in the ATP Finals championship match.
This man will get there. He will win one of the four most important tournaments in tennis. It’s not a matter of IF, but WHEN.
On this point, I don’t think 2019 will deliver this first title.
Rafael Nadal, if healthy for clay season, wipes Zverev off the board at Roland Garros. Djokovic is the firm favorite at the Australian Open, where he will relish being “whole” again. Roger Federer will try to make a charge at Wimbledon, with Djokovic probably still being the favorite there.
I think if it all comes together for Zverev in 2019, the U.S. Open would represent his best chance. If the Big 3 have played a lot of tennis and won a lot of tournaments, Zverev could swoop in and take advantage of their tired legs… but I doubt it.
Zverev’s only major quarterfinal last year was a match in which he had nothing left in the tank. The costs of getting his one major quarterfinal in 2018 were large. He spent so much energy fighting through five-set matches that he dismantled his chances of winning that tournament.
Yes, Zverev played the ATP Finals the right way. THAT is how he needs to play at the majors… but of course, doing that at majors is not something he is familiar with. The pacing of the tournament represents a puzzle he must adjust to, and that will probably take time – more time than one year.
What would be a good 2019 for Zverev at the majors? I don’t think he has to win one. He just needs to be consistently solid and set the table for the next leap in 2020.
Give me three quarterfinals and two semifinals at the majors in 2019 – one final would be ideal, but not necessary – and Zverev would be able to enter 2020 knowing he would be ready to claim great riches. 2019 doesn’t have to answer every question or quiet every doubt. It just has to get past the idea that Zverev can’t consistently play late in the second weeks of these signature tournaments.