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.