I first encountered the name Zverev in the year 2013, when Mischa Zverev played Roger Federer in a quarter-final on the greens of Halle. Zverev was given a pounding, losing 6-0, 6-0 to give Federer only the second double bagel of his career. Even for a Federer fan, it was an embarrassing sight. It would go on to be one of the few highlights of a very difficult year for the Swiss maestro, and I learned to cherish the moment in later years. However, this is not about Roger Federer, this is not about Mischa Zverev either. This is about his little brother, Alexander Sascha Zverev. Standing at 6’6, this baby-faced young German was already beginning to make his first inroads in the circuit then.
Reminding everyone of another young German who aced the greens of Wimbledon at 17, this boy was part of a fresh crop of players who were promising to be the next generation of tennis. Dominic Thiem, Borna Coric, Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Bernard Tomic, Noah Rubin and Elias Ymer were making their presence felt at a variety of levels. Kyrgios, Thiem and Coric in particular were already achieving big wins, with Tomic as an ever-present spark of inconsistent genius. However, even the most generous tennis fan or analyst would have to be careful before pronouncing the arrival of the Next Big Thing or even the Next Big Generation of tennis.
The dominance of the big four
Since the stranglehold of the now near-mythical big four of tennis — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray — began, generations of tennis players have come and gone without much success. The same seemed to be true of this generation, most of whom were already in their twenties without a substantial title to show.
Picture this, since March 2008, the Big Four have won 75 out of 85 Masters trophies and 60 out of the last 65 before Rome 2017. Since April 2010, only Marin Cilic (Cincinnati 2016), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (Toronto 2014), Stan Wawrinka(Monte-Carlo 2014), David Ferrer (Paris 2012) and Robin Soderling (Paris 2010) have had any share of the spoils other than them. Zverev also snapped a streak dating back a decade where the big four have won 31 out of the last 32 clay court Masters, with Wawrinka’s win being the sole exception, and a close one at that. The same goes for Grand Slam titles between French Open 2005 and Wimbledon 2014, which only saw Juan Martin Del Potro (US Open 2010) win a title besides the big four. While Wawrinka has managed to break that strangehold with three late-career Slam victories, the Masters tournaments remain very much the big four’s to keep, with Federer and Nadal winning two each before Zverev’s memorable win.
The nature of Sascha’s brilliance
The monumental weight of the task that Zverev has achieved should be reiterated as many times as possible. By winning the Rome Masters, Zverev became at 20 years of age the youngest to win at the level since the man he beat, Novak Djokovic, a decade ago at Miami. He is also the youngest member of the Top 10, having broken in after his victory in the final. It is a remarkable achievement for a player who has yet to reach a 100 match wins on the tour. That he did against the man who holds the most Masters titles, with 30 triumphs at the elite level, and a man who only a year ago held all four Grand Slams at the same time, makes it even more awe-inspiring. The reason Zverev was able to defeat Djokovic, a four-time winner at the Italian Open, was due to his preternatural calm. He played the simplest of games, but showed terrific composure in never allowing Djokovic a single break point. To do this against the greatest returner in the modern game is no mean feat, and shows that Zverev has a quality that seems to be lacking in the other talents of his generation and the one before it. It shows that he has an incredible determination and will to win, the two things that can catapult a merely talented player into a truly legendary one. It is what separates a Djokovic from a Gasquet, and it is what will separate a Zverev from a Dimitrov. Talent alone proves to be of little value at the elite level of a competitive sport. Roger Federer himself went through years of frustration before he could find the right balance and composure needed to win a Grand Slam and thereafter to win consistently. Zverev’s success is not a fluke. He has done extremely well so far this year, and the Italian Open was his third title of the year, tied with Federer and Nadal. He had previously also been crowned champion at Montpellier and Munich. It was perhaps portentous that his very first ATP title had come in September of 2016 at St. Petersburg, by beating Stan Wawrinka, who had only recently won the US Open. That Sascha Zverev is made for the big stage is proven by his ability to play the big matches well, his ability to not be overawed by the weight of his task or the reputation of his opponent. It is his ability to not be blinded by minor successes, but to focus on each match as it comes. He displays an irreverence long absent from the men’s game in the era of the Big Four, and it is an irreverence supplemented by a calm that would steady the rockiest boat.
By breaking through a barrier that none of his contemporaries have managed so far, Zverev has hopefully opened the floodgates. As the inevitable twilight years of Federer and Nadal’s careers approach, and even Djokovic and Murray cross 30, the need for young talent to come into its own, to actually challenge for titles is vital for the continuation of the sport. Otherwise, the sport will enter a vacuum once the big four have retired, from which it shall be hard to emerge in the age of quick entertainment. While the big four have given tennis fans innumerable great moments, by defining an era so completely dominated by so few players, they have also eroded the excitement and unpredictability of the sport to a large extent. With the coming of age of Sascha Zverev, and the recent success of both Nick Kyrgios and Dominic Thiem, it appears as if the future of the sport is in the hands of some incredible, fearless big-hitting youngsters. Whether the old titans allow themselves to be dislodged so easily, or whether they continue to hold off the hungry young upstarts snapping at their heels, as they have done so many before them, only the years will tell.
A future to behold
But whether this comes to pass or not, it is an exciting time to be a tennis fan. At the cross-roads between the blazing late brilliance of some of the greatest players to have ever graced the game, and the rise of new constellations over the night sky of tennis, it is the tennis fans, standing on the sidelines with their mouth open, unable to believe what they are seeing, who stand to gain the most. And when the chaos is done and the dust has settled, it is my belief that a certain baby-faced young German will be standing tall, both arms full of the just rewards that reaching the pinnacle of a sport can bring to a player.