Alexander Zverev has long arms, and he doesn’t mind flapping his mouth, but that’s not why I call him a caged bird.
The image of the caged bird is much deeper, more profound, and substantive than a superficial, physical identification. Maya Angelou wrote “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” 50 years ago, a story of trying to find freedom and wholeness from a context of great pain and struggle.
Alexander Zverev isn’t trying to change the world. He is merely trying to create a better tennis career. Yet, the struggle to find life-work balance and be at peace with oneself is powerfully human… and a very serious matter which deserves empathy and compassion from the outside world.
We don’t need to go into great detail about everything which has happened to Alexander Zverev this year.
Intimate personal and professional relationships have spun sideways. Zverev’s life as a businessman has been disrupted and uprooted. Zverev has had to question the quality of his decisions and the integrity of the people surrounding him.
In the midst of his off-court troubles, Zverev was working with a high-profile coach, Ivan Lendl.
I have remarked previously that with so much of Zverev’s life being blown up in 2019, the idea of stepping away from Lendl until everything was settled off the court might have been a way for Zverev to handle the 2019 season with minimal pressure, and to regain Lendl’s services for 2020 with a fresh start.
That did not happen. Zverev therefore aired a little bit of laundry in public, referring to how little Lendl was (from his point of view) contributing to the process of coaching. That likely burned a bridge he can’t repair with Lendl, if he ever wanted him back. (Lendl, remember, had two separate stints with Andy Murray, as opposed to one uninterrupted coaching tenure.)
Did Lendl not give Zverev his best? I’m not going to answer that question. What I will say is that with so much going on in Zverev’s life, it was not an easy time for Zverev to apply a full range of lessons or exhortations from Lendl. His mind was not clear and uncluttered.
What we will never truly know is if Lendl quickly gave up on the idea of giving Zverev extensive instructions, because he knew that Zverev was not in position to take on a lot of information. We can all speculate on that point, but we will never get the full truth.
What remains — as the salient observation from that relationship and Zverev’s 2019 season — is that Zverev obviously hasn’t been in a position to play lucid, calm, confident, free-flowing tennis, the kind of tennis which has given him three Masters 1000 titles and an ATP Finals championship.
This is the caged bird who needs to fly freely again.
Someone needs to unlock the cage.
When I suffered panic attacks and dealt with clinical anxiety in the years 2004 and 2005, my brain was paralyzed at the thought of going more than 50 yards from my residence.
Being alone on a city bus, alone on city streets, alone in unfamiliar places, terrified me. Anxiety was such a demon for me at the time because I didn’t want to carry it wherever I went. Going on a trip — even a short one, even for normal matters of personal business — created the thought in my not-rational, not-fully-functioning mind that I was spreading my anxiety to various places.
I was worried that by going to the grocery store, or the movie theater, or other places in my neighborhood other than my home — in the midst of my runaway anxiety — I would create a permanent and new reality in which those places would ALWAYS be associated with my anxiety.
This is why I was unwilling to leave home when I was anxious.
This reality from 14 and 15 years ago enables me to understand, at least to an extent, what Alexander Zverev is going through after his loss to Diego Schwartzman at the 2019 U.S. Open, which mercifully puts his joyless, frustrating, passive, agonizing year at the major tournaments to bed.
Zverev is playing joyless tennis. He is immersed in a part of his journey where this sport is not fun. It is not providing excitement or hopefulness. It is not eliciting discoveries which increase his love of life and feed a sense of curiosity which expands creativity.
Zverev is the fearful person who doesn’t want to leave his house, penned in by his mind and unable to confidently, happily, step into a new way of being.
He is a person who acts like someone wracked with anxiety and self-doubt.
He is a person I can very clearly recognize, because that person was me, in 2004 and 2005.
(Side note: The fact that Roger Federer became a great tennis player in those same two years is a big reason why I followed professional tennis a lot more closely in those years, beginning a process which led to me writing about tennis as a profession today.)
Of course Alexander Zverev shouldn’t stand 10 trillion miles behind the baseline and play passive tennis hitting to very safe targets. Of course Zverev needs to overhaul his approach. No one disputes this.
The story BENEATH the story is not just the off-court troubles Zverev has faced in 2019, but the reality that when we are fearful or anxious, we can’t see the fuller reality of the world around us. We can’t because we don’t want to… because if we DID see everything for what it was, that might be too scary and say too many bad things about ourselves.
Alexander Zverev doesn’t need criticism. He needs a hug. He needs to get away from this sport for a few months. He needs to clear the deck — mentally — and start fresh in 2020 so that he can play the liberated tennis he is capable of producing.
If he sorts out everything else about his life, the tennis should follow.
Let’s deal with his life first. The tennis can wait.
The tennis will be better than it has been in 2019. Alexander Zverev just has to gain the time and space needed to realize how he can put himself in a position to restore his world.
Right now, that world isn’t big and beautiful and filled with endless possibilities. It is a caged.
This bird can’t fly until he unlocks the cage. It’s time to find the key.