Alexander Zverev's split from coach Ivan Lendl may not be total disaster that it seems on the surface
Zverev has looked passive, frustrated and clueless on the court for much of 2019. His forehand, which was supposed to transform into a weapon under Lendl’s tutelage didn't, neither his ability to tough out wins from adverse situations – which is the exact opposite of what most people expected to happen with Lendl by his side.
When Lendl took up the role of Alexander Zverev’s coach last August, it was considered as something of a game-changer
Less than a year after the headline-grabbing appointment, Zverev and Lendl have now parted ways
Two years, two ‘super coaches’, and two less-than-amicable splits for Zverev.
The ‘Lendl-face’ meme hasn’t yet gotten old. You’ve seen one of those, haven’t you? The one where the same Ivan Lendl poker-face is labeled with a variety of emotions – like ‘happy’, ‘upset’, ‘hungry’ or ‘delirious’?
The meme was especially funny because of how close it was to the truth. Whether Andy Murray won or lost during their time working together, Lendl would always wear the same expression – utterly disinterested / unimpressed. Sometimes he’d even add sunglasses to the picture, and the jokes just wrote themselves.
His coaching, however, was far from a laughing matter. Widely reported to be a strict disciplinarian who had no sympathy for the insecurities of youth, Lendl made Murray a tougher and more aggressive player with his no-nonsense ways. The result: three Grand Slams, two Olympic gold medals, and a much-celebrated stint as World No. 1.
So when Lendl took up the role of Alexander Zverev’s coach last August, it was considered as something of a game-changer. The parallels between Zverev and Murray were too strong to ignore. Just like Murray, Zverev had a tendency to go a little soft in training and in big matches. The German also, again akin to Murray, frequently struggled to find the mindset to attack with his forehand.
Lendl had experience as both player and coach in overcoming the obstacles that Zverev was dealing with. As a player, Lendl lost his first four Slam finals before toughening up and becoming the dominant player of the 80s. He also revolutionized the baseline game with the power and aggression on his forehand, teaching the entire world how to maximize their results with that one shot.
Then as a coach he helped Murray imbibe those exact same lessons, and in the process forged one of the most symbiotically successful partnerships in modern times.
Judging from Murray’s turnaround after getting the Czech on board, Zverev and Lendl seemed like a match made in heaven. Surely Lendl was the right man to guide the German, and the key to Zverev starting his Slam-winning spree?
Evidently not. While ‘Lendl-face’ may have made a smooth transition from Murray’s player box to Zverev’s, the results didn’t.
Less than a year after the headline-grabbing appointment, Zverev and Lendl have now parted ways. The split hasn’t been free of controversy either; just a couple of days ago Zverev said that he wasn’t happy with Lendl’s lack of focus on tennis, claiming that his coach often on the practice court.
In his press conference after the Hamburg quarter-final against Filip Krajinovic (which the 22-year-old won despite being 2-6, 2-5 down at one stage), Zverev clarified his stance without spouting anything negative about the legend.
“I have nothing but respect for him. We had a great 10 months,” Zverev said. “Ivan was great to everyone in the team. There is nothing to complain about.”
But if you are a Zverev fan you probably do have something to complain about. After reaching the peak of his powers at the ATP Finals last year, Zverev has clearly regressed this season. It’s not just the lack of big titles (he’s only won the 250 tournament in Geneva so far) that has been alarming; it’s also the way he has lost the bulk of his matches.
Zverev has looked passive, frustrated and clueless on the court for much of 2019. His forehand, which was supposed to transform into a weapon under Lendl’s tutelage, has become even loopier than before. And his ability to tough out wins from adverse situations has also taken a nosedive – which is the exact opposite of what most people expected to happen with Lendl by his side.
To his credit, Zverev never blamed his struggles on Lendl before his ‘golf’ comment this week. He had a torturous claycourt swing leading up to Roland Garros, but attributed that to the and answering emails and phone calls. He lost in the Wimbledon first round last month, and then promptly talked about how his personal issues had played a part in his sub-par performance.
The person Zverev was referring to is widely believed to be his former agent Patricio Apey, who left the German’s team at the end of last season – right after Zverev won the biggest title of his career in London. Did that split somehow affect Zverev’s relations with Lendl? The Czech certainly didn’t shy away from bringing up Zverev’s off-court distractions yesterday.
“I think that one day he may become a great player but currently, he has some off-court issues that make it difficult to work in a way that is consistent with my philosophy,” Lendl’s statement on the split read.
Lendl was obviously not going to drop names, but an unlikely source has gone on record affirming that Apey was indeed causing trouble in Zverev’s affairs: Boris Becker.
“They (Zverev and Lendl) won the ATP Finals, and then something broke between them. I’m not going into details, but something happened, and it had something to do with Apey,” Becker said at a press conference in Hamburg this week.
Let’s back up a bit here: Becker is also (famously) German, and has been close to the Zverevs for a while. It is entirely possible he knows more about the internal affairs of the 22-year-old and his team than the rest of the world, and his mysterious comment about Apey is exactly the kind of Becker-esque thing you expect him to do in such a situation.
The three-time Wimbledon champion was in fact many observers’ favored candidate to coach Zverev two years ago. Becker had a well-documented and successful coaching stint with Novak Djokovic in the mid-2010s, and his nationality made him almost as obvious a choice to join Zverev’s team as Lendl.
Ironically, it was Becker’s personal issues that stopped Zverev from taking him on back then. “I just thought Ivan’s life right now is a little bit easier,” , when asked why he had picked Lendl over Becker. But Zverev had also added that he hoped he could work with Becker sometime in the future.
Has that point in the future arrived now, with Lendl’s exit?
Not according to Becker. “I’m always by his side, and if he asks me, I’ll always tell him my honest opinion. But I can’t imagine traveling around the world as a tennis coach for 30 weeks again,” he said in his Hamburg presser.
There could, however, be more to Becker’s reluctance to work with his young compatriot than he is letting on. Zverev is, by all accounts, a difficult player to coach. Lendl distancing himself from his charge could well be a sign that he wasn’t making much headway with his lessons.
At Roland Garros this year Lendl wasn’t with Zverev at the tournament, despite being in Paris at the same time. The Czech thought it would be more useful to attend a corporate gig at a local tennis club than help Zverev with his training – something that Zverev only found out after reading about it in the media, which he found ‘a bit weird’.
Communication break-downs with coaches are not a new thing for the young German. Just over a year ago he split with another Slam-winning mentor Juan Carlos Ferrero, and under distinctly acrimonious circumstances.
First Zverev claimed that the two had got into a fight after Ferrero had been disrespectful to the other members of his team. Then saying that it was Zverev who had shown lack of respect – by arriving late for practice sessions and flouting the guidelines he had set.
It’s hard to imagine the painfully ambitious Zverev having a lousy work ethic, and his frustration with Lendl’s golf talks seems to corroborate that he’s always up for sweating it out on the practice court. But Ferrero said what he said, and the fact remains that Zverev has shown little progress in his game since winning his second Masters title at Madrid in 2018.
Two years, two ‘super coaches’, and two less-than-amicable splits. If I were a part of Zverev’s team, I’d be a little worried about his future right now – no matter how many ‘youngest ever’ records he may have broken over the last couple of years.
But at the moment Zverev is happy working with his father, who has coached him right since he first picked up a racquet. “I have the best coach in the world and I’m happy for now,” Zverev said in his Hamburg presser. “I want to go back to my old way of having my family and dad around me, having that winning feeling again.”
Maybe he’s on to something there. Zverev has looked less than happy on the court the past two years, which is incidentally the same period he hasn’t been coached directly by Alexander Zverev Sr. At first it was tempting to think that his grouchiness was because of the new burden of expectations on his shoulders. But it’s possible that it may have had more to do with the fact that he wasn’t working as closely with his father as he had been all his life.
Not just his on-court behavior, but even Zverev’s play has started to look like a painstaking chore – notwithstanding the fact that he won a fair few titles with that labor-intensive style. Many have bemoaned how Zverev has lost the easy power that he dazzled everyone with when he first burst on to the scene as a skinny teenager who fist-pumped a little too vociferously for his age.
Can he regain that effortlessness in his game now that his father is his coach again? Or will he go in search of another retired great to torture himself under?
If he does the latter, you hope that he chooses someone just as meme-worthy as Lendl. At least the tennis world would have its share of entertainment then – because Zverev’s current game is providing none.
Zverev beat the top two players in consecutive matches to earn his second title at the ATP Finals.
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