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THIEM WINS THE BATTLE, BUT DJOKOVIC MIGHT WIN THE WAR

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

Recall the moment 11 months ago in Rome: Novak Djokovic destroyed Dominic Thiem, 6-1 and 6-0, in the Rome semifinals. Yes, Thiem had spilled the tank the night before in the quarterfinals against Rafael Nadal. Thiem’s hunger to win that match jumped through the television screen after a tough loss to the King of Clay in the Madrid final days earlier. Nadal always tries hard, and he tried hard that day in Rome, but Thiem reached a higher plateau and had more to offer in his (then-) 23-year-old legs. Nadal had won Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid and frankly needed a little added respite before Roland Garros. Nadal didn’t purposefully lose that match, but his body was not as resilient as Thiem’s was under the conditions. Thiem took advantage.

One night later, Djokovic took advantage of the fact that Thiem was spent.

It was hard for me to watch Djokovic dismantle Thiem in Rome and think that the Austrian could flip the script just a few weeks later… but where I clearly erred in sizing up that quarterfinal rematch in Roland Garros is that I didn’t follow my own advice. I didn’t account for the specific circumstances of a match, which are regularly germane to any assessment of the performance and condition of the two players.

This is the point which gets lost in analyzing so many tennis matches: The circumstances of each match are particular to a given moment in time. They might not change to a considerable degree in most cases, but there is usually at least one detail of significance which changes before each reunion between two players. When Player A wins under favorable circumstances and Player B loses, that doesn’t necessarily mean Player A is the empirically better tennis player on a general level. It can and often DOES mean exactly that, but on many occasions, a result of a match is less a verdict on the overall quality of the two players and more of a product of circumstances.

We know with the benefit of hindsight that the version of Djokovic which played tennis in the first half of the 2017 season was not a fully healthy player. We also knew at the time in Rome that Djokovic was in the midst of a process to try to regain his A-game. As much as Thiem was mentally fried in that Rome semifinal, the fact that Djokovic could pounce on the Austrian suggested that Nole was ready for Roland Garros.

However, as said above, I failed to give enough weight to the fact that Thiem entered that match at a disadvantage. 

More specifically, I felt that since the Rome match was so lopsided, the Roland Garros reunion would be extremely hard for Thiem to win. I discounted Thiem’s chances because of the clinically easy way in which Nole eviscerated him, not accounting for the circumstances of the Rome match to the degree that was warranted. To be more precise, I don’t regret picking Djokovic to win; I specifically regret giving Thiem such a small chance of winning.

Among the finer details of that Roland Garros quarterfinal lay the reality that the match was postponed one day because of rain in Paris. The match was supposed to be played on a Tuesday but wound up being played on a Wednesday. It became the inverse of Rome in that Thiem was a supremely rested player, not an overtaxed player. That freshness showed up in Thiem’s game, whereas Djokovic — as soon as he let the first set slip out of his grasp — knew he had a huge uphill battle to fight. He wasn’t up for it in his diminished condition. The circumstances of a given day and a given match had shifted dramatically to Thiem. As soon as the one-handed backhander “Bamosed” his way through a tough and nerve-soaked first set, his belief grew while his opponent lost trust.

This didn’t mean Thiem was an empirically better player on clay. It DID mean that Thiem took advantage of favorable circumstances.

That dynamic definitely carried into 2018’s clay season on Thursday at the Monte Carlo Country Club.

Yes, Thiem came into Monte Carlo off an injury, but the Austrian looked pain-free in a long and taxing two-hour, 40-minute match against Andrey Rublev in the round of 32. In a first match after a layoff, one should expect rust. Thiem’s ability to get through that that without pain — or defeat — was enough to suggest that on his beloved clay, he could be a factor this week. (Going into the Rublev match, such certitude wasn’t as warranted.) Thiem is a walking embodiment of impatience on hardcourts and grass, but it becomes very apparent that when playing on red dirt, the extra time he gets to set up for his shots makes his game fall neatly into place. His shot choices can still fall short of desirable standards, but the process of sliding into shots and preparing his body for each groundstroke is comfortable on clay. It isn’t remotely comfortable on other surfaces. 

One could choose a lot of stats from this match to explain why Thiem won and Djokovic lost. To me, the one which stands out is that Thiem committed only 12 unforced errors from his backhand side. In three involved sets of clay-court tennis with a lot of textured rallies and above-average hitting, averaging only four backhand UFEs per set is not merely good; it’s outstanding.

Part of that statistic can reasonably be attributed to Djokovic not using as much topspin or variety as he did when he was a dominant World No. 1. Yet, Djokovic hit with more purpose and consistency this week in Monte Carlo — not at the level he had when he ruled the roost, but miles better than what we saw in Indian Wells and Miami. Thiem, in the face of Djokovic’s noticeably improved hitting, was able to hold up well. He flinched in the first-set tiebreaker, but after that, he regrouped and steadied his ship. He played at a high level, which shows that Djokovic pushed him in order to get to the third set at 3-3 and deuce before the Austrian took over in the final few games.

This is where circumstances once again enter the picture.

Djokovic was as ready for battle as he was a day earlier against Borna Coric, but Thiem simply had more to offer on clay. Djokovic was not hurt by having to play matches on consecutive days. If anything — as he acknowledged after the match — Djokovic needs more match play and more opportunities to build a rhythm in these weeks before Roland Garros. Circumstances shaped this match — providing the aforementioned “one key detail” which is particular to each new encounter between two players — not from Djokovic’s side, but from Thiem’s side.

The fact that Thiem played his round of 32 match on Tuesday mattered far more than Djokovic playing his R-32 match on Wednesday. Thiem was able to regroup from the Rublev match. This doesn’t guarantee he would have lost had he played the Rublev match on Wednesday, but when realizing that he lost a tough and close first set, the physical climb might have been much harder for Thiem if he had played Djokovic without a day off.

As in Roland Garros, Thiem turned a rest day into his best day, a rest break into a fortuitous break and a quality result which sends him into Friday’s quarterfinals against Rafael Nadal. The plot twist for Thiem is that if circumstances favored him against Djokovic on Thursday (as at Roland Garros last year), they will once again cut against him versus Rafa, as at Roland Garros last year. It took a lot out of Thiem on a mental level to fight past Djokovic at a major. Nadal did not spend much time on court in an abbreviated Roland Garros quarterfinal against Pablo Carreno Busta, who had to retire. Rafa was farm fresh for the subsequent Roland Garros semifinal against Thiem, who stood no chance against the Duke of La Decima. Friday in Monte Carlo, Nadal — after another very short day at the office against Karen Khachanov — will once again be rested. Thiem will once again be coming off a taxing win over Djokovic. In that case, the better player also has favorable circumstances in his corner.

On Thursday, Djokovic did not have the favorable circumstances on his side… but that doesn’t mean he is less of a threat than Thiem to challenge Nadal more than a month from now in Paris. If anything, this match offered both neutral observers and Djokovic fans ample reason to think that Nole can be ready to stare down Rafa on Court Philippe Chatrier in mid-June, should they land in opposite halves of the draw.

The backhand still leaks errors and the topspin needs to emerge, but Djokovic has escaped the dark prison of Indian Wells and Miami in which he simply did not trust his body. This lack of trust is part of the diminished mind-body dualism every athlete must repair if it ever gets broken. Djokovic’s inner doubts came from many sources, one of them being a lack of match play and match fitness, but another central piece of the puzzle was his coaching situation. 

This week in Monte Carlo and on Thursday against Thiem, Djokovic looked like the full-throated, entirely robust competitor we are used to seeing. The game was not precise or fully lubricated, but the fighting spirit was entirely present. Knowing Marian Vajda is back in his corner gave Djokovic a world of inner refreshment. Though hardly on top of his game, Djokovic made noticeable improvements and came appreciably close to beating one of the three best clay-courters in the world (Nadal being No. 1 and Djokovic being the other member of that top three). The restoration process is only just beginning, but it took several steps in the right direction. With over a month until Roland Garros, Djokovic has ample time to be ready for Paris. 

Many observers (including me) felt that Djokovic was stuck and lost in March, and that the clay season was a lost cause. His timely and astute coaching change — back to a place of comfort and trust — has finally enabled him to get unstuck, which gives him a real chance to reset the dial on his season and become a championship-level player once again. 

Yet, the dramatic improvement in Djokovic’s ballstriking and competitive quality certainly lends more than a little credence to the notion that while Dominic Thiem took advantage of favorable circumstances on Thursday in Monte Carlo, Novak Djokovic could be in position to create an even more advantageous position when Roland Garros rolls around at the end of May.

Mayday? Mayday? The crisis atmosphere surrounding Djokovic has given way to a climate of pronounced optimism. Thiem won a match on Thursday, but Djokovic might have won something which will last longer — and create an even bigger ripple effect on the remainder of this still-young 2018 ATP season.

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Image taken from Zimbio.com

 

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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… 

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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

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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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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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