Sascha Zverev and Ivan Lendl weren’t going to magically and immediately flourish in New York.
“Oh, easy for you to say now,” you might declare, after Zverev’s unexpected loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round of the U.S. Open on Saturday.
Indeed, this was unexpected.
Zverev lost to Kohlschreiber in a situation where players such as John Isner have lost to Kohlschreiber in the past. Kohlschreiber had beaten Isner multiple times in the U.S. Open third round. Isner had lost to Mischa Zverev in the third round of the Open last year. The American just couldn’t get past Germans. It was a mysterious affliction for a man who has made a relatively substantial number of Masters 1000 semifinals (11) with four M-1000 finals and a championship. That championship was won this past spring in Miami against… Sascha Zverev, who has won nine titles before turning 22.
Philipp Kohlschreiber, age 34, has won eight titles in his whole career.
The veteran obviously doesn’t have one major semifinal — the same as Sascha — but Kohlschreiber, unlike Isner, doesn’t even have a substantial track record at the Masters events: not one semifinal, let alone a final. Kohlschreiber, a lot like Richard Gasquet, is known for being the kind of player the Big 3 can reliably defeat when meeting him at a big tournament. He is the player who might soar for one and a half sets but consistently can’t close the sale. In 2018, Kohlschreiber has shown flickers of resilience. He made the Indian Wells quarterfinals, snapping an eight-year drought without a Masters quarterfinal. He made the round of 16 at each of the three clay Masters events in the spring. He has made improvements this year… but still no deep runs. The improvement in Kohlschreiber’s portfolio of results this season has been the reduction of first-match losses at significant tournaments.
He has slightly advanced. He has not transformed or overhauled his identity or reputation.
This was a player Sascha should have beaten. It was a player the 21-year-old needed to beat, especially since he had put in so much work to be physically fit and mentally ready for the challenge of five-set tennis this year, grinding his way to the French Open quarterfinals and showing he could persevere when not at his best. Kohlschreiber is not an easy opponent, but roughly a decade and a half of ATP Tour competition has shown that if you are among the elites on tour, you should be able to break his game down.
Instead, it was Sascha who broke down, crumbling into the misery of a 6-1 third set and getting routined over the course of the final three sets after winning set one in a tiebreaker. The weather on Saturday was not the ridiculously oppressive cauldron Zverev had handled well in his first two matches. This was a head scratcher akin to last year’s U.S. Open loss to Borna Coric.
To be clear — and fair — Zverev’s Wimbledon loss to Ernests Gulbis was not a bad loss. Zverev was still not 100-percent recovered from his French Open, in which the long parade of five-set matches ground his body into fine powder. Zverev should not have played Halle (where Coric again beat him). He needed rest more than anything else. Wimbledon was negatively affected by Roland Garros. Few in tennis would dispute that.
This U.S. Open, on the other hand, did not carry the same bleak outlook. Zverev lost in the quarterfinals of Toronto and in his first match in Cincinnati. The humidity of a North American summer is not the same as the moderate conditions of Europe in early to mid-May. Zverev dominated that part of the tennis calendar, making finals in three straight weeks (Munich-Madrid-Rome), a supreme rarity anywhere on the ATP Tour this decade. However, in the humidity of Ohio, he still hasn’t won a main-draw match. That was frustrating, but it did give him a chance to recharge his batteries and bring a relatively rested body to New York for a chance to take a step forward.
That step forward, though, figured to be the quarterfinal stage of the tournament, not anything beyond that.
No, Ivan Lendl and Sascha were not going to suddenly find the ability to go beyond the quarterfinals in the Big Apple — at least, the prospect was not likely.
Marin Cilic’s late-hour five-set win over Alex de Minaur — at just after 2:20 a.m. on Sunday morning — neatly underscored the difference between the Croatian and Zverev at this point in time. Cilic doesn’t always win the matches he is supposed to win; ask Guido Pella at Wimbledon. However, Cilic wins a lot more of these kinds of matches than he used to, and he also certainly wins many more of these kinds of matches than Sascha does. The higher-echelon players soldier through the bad nights at the work office and find a way to get past pesky opposition. This is what Sascha did at Roland Garros, but it is what Sascha has still failed to do at the other major tournaments he has played.
Considering Sascha’s lack of consistent, regular production at major tournaments, it made total sense to expect that Cilic would come out of this quarter, not Zverev. The young German has not established his habits in five-set tournaments. He is searching for them, and he knows that Lendl has the proven track record which can help him.
That relationship, however, is so young and new that any advice from Lendl would be little more than words out of a person’s mouth, advice any coach would offer.
Yes, Lendl is not just “any coach.” I am not trying to downgrade Lendl’s quality or influence. The point I am stressing is that when a coach-player relationship is brand new, as is the case here, there is no sense of emotional connection between the two individuals. The commitment both men have made to each other hasn’t been tested or shaped or stretched. There is no sense of friction or emotional complexity from which a player can access deeper wells of understanding and introspection.
This relationship was so new that Lendl’s wisdom would not have time to penetrate.
Ahhhhh — but now it can.
Now, after this loss to Kohlschreiber, Lendl can look at a four-set match in which Zverev could not adjust to Kohlschreiber’s slices and his overall variety of speeds and spins. Now, Lendl — as a coach — has seen a Sascha Zverev stumble at a major. Now Lendl can break down Sascha’s game, and approach… and his mind. Sascha hired Lendl because he wanted to be coached, wanted to be molded, wanted to become better. If he is smart — and I think he definitely is — he will be receptive to Lendl’s coaching. He will accept stern criticism and the “tough love” Lendl has to offer. He will submit to harsh verdicts, because that is a price champions pay when they know they are not making the cut.
Zverev knows how to win three-set tournaments. He and everyone else in tennis knows how hard it is — and has been — to make the transition to the four five-set tournaments in Australia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He hired Lendl to help him past these hurdles. Now that the Lendl-Zverev partnership has been baptized in the waters of a shared major loss, Lendl can sink in his claws — and his message — to truly begin the transformative process.
Zverev, despite his manageable draw, did not enter New York showing that he was ready to make a first major semifinal. Cilic remained the better choice from that quarter of the bracket. Not making the second week definitely rates as a disappointment for Zverev, who has hit his head on the low ceiling known as the third round in three of his four majors in 2018. That point can’t be ignored. Yet, Ivan Lendl’s first major with Sascha was not going to be the tournament in which everything fell into place.
In fact, one could reasonably say that this tournament needed to display the same patterns and realities of past majors, so that Lendl could inwardly say, “Aha, so THIS is what I need to fix.” Now that Lendl has watched Zverev prematurely tumble out of a major while having more skin in the game — more of an investment, more of a stake in the outcome of the career under his watch — he can spend the coming months before the 2019 Australian Open imparting the Gospel According to Ivan.
Maybe in 2019, Sascha will get the old-time religion and become a believer — in more ways than one — at the tournaments he has yet to figure out.
This 2018 U.S. Open wasn’t fun. It sure felt familiar for Sascha Zverev. Yet, this might be the punch in the face which enables Ivan Lendl to turn his gifted pupil into a new man at the majors.
Let the transformation begin. Let another death give rise to new life.