ATP Finals: Alexander Zverev’s evolution gets a nitrogen boost with blistering win over Novak Djokovic
Zverev’s win wasn’t just about his supernatural serving. He also edged Djokovic in the battle of the baseline, surprisingly winning plenty of the long rallies.
“Why does he ever hit inside-in forehands?” I thought to myself after Alexander Zverev won a point while serving at 3-4, 30-0 in the first set against Novak Djokovic on Sunday. Yes, Zverev had won the point, but Djokovic had had little trouble returning his inside-in forehand and keeping the ball low, which forced the German to come up with a difficult backhand drop volley.
The problem, as we’ve seen for most of the second half of 2018, is that Zverev has neither been taking enough risk with that shot, nor been playing it consistently enough. Whenever he sets up for an inside-in forehand, you expect him to do one of two things: Net it, or hit it softly enough that the whole court is exposed for a crosscourt winner by the opponent.
Two games later though, Zverev got in position to hit another inside-in forehand. This time, the stakes were higher — Djokovic was a break point down, and the energy levels were lower — the two men had exchanged 19 full-throttle groundstrokes up to that moment.
As Djokovic finally hit a short-ish backhand that sat up a little, Zverev went around his backhand in preparation for a forehand down the line. And if you were a fan of his, you’d have wanted to close your eyes in fear.
But fear was clearly the last thing on the 21-year-old’s mind. He took one step to his left, swung his racquet with unnerved precision, and boom! The ball went curling away from Djokovic for an inch-perfect winner.
It had taken just two games for Zverev to finetune a shot that had been his Achilles’ heel so often in the recent past. His reward? A second consecutive break of serve against a player who hadn’t been broken all week.
Was this really the same player who had been stuck in a post-US Open slump so severe that he was losing to the likes of Malek Jaziri and Marius Copil? Last week, not many had given Zverev a chance of reaching the final of the ATP year-end championship, let alone winning it. The man seemed to have stumbled rather than sprinted into London, and he couldn’t stop whining about the ‘ridiculous’ length of the season.
It was a mark of how unlikable Zverev had been in the previous few months, both with his game and his attitude, that he got very little sympathy for his complaints. Yevgeny Kafelnikov said he was ‘fed up of this bullshit’, and reminded Zverev of the 90s when the season used to be even longer. And Roger Federer basically told Zverev that it was a privilege to be a tennis player, and that he should take a vacation if he was so tired.
Maybe those responses lit a fire under Zverev that no amount of yelling by Ivan Lendl could. The German improved – maybe even evolved - dramatically with each passing hour after losing to Djokovic in the group stage. It was almost like he wanted to tell the world, “I’ll show you I can beat the best of the best, but you better start listening to what I have to say.”
It started with the match against John Isner. Zverev put in a staggering 75 per cent of first serves in that match, at an average speed of more than 130 mph. There’s not much anyone can do against such consistent and powerful serving; certainly not a less-than-stellar returner like Isner.
But Zverev’s next opponent was not a less-than-stellar returner. In fact, Federer is widely considered one of the best first-serve returners in the world, if not in history. So Zverev amped up the rest of his game too, as though he was merely waiting for a challenge like this. He unleashed his down-the-line backhand to take time away from Federer, and went after his forehand in a way that we had rarely, if ever, seen from him.
Federer played well, and still lost in straight sets. That’s something we almost never get to say about the Swiss legend.
Zverev’s final – and biggest – obstacle would not be cowed with a few down-the-line backhands or forceful forehands though. To defeat Djokovic (or in other words, pull off the impossible), Zverev would have to produce something superhuman. And so he did just that.
In the first set, Zverev got 88 per cent of his first serves in. Let that sink in for a moment. 88 per cent. That’s a statistic beyond anyone’s wildest expectations; it’s just not supposed to happen.
There was no way the German was losing a set while serving like that – not even to the greatest returner the world has ever seen. We already knew how dangerous he could be when he went into his serve-bot mode; we saw how he won the Madrid Masters earlier this year without losing his serve even once. Call the ATP Finals Madrid Redux, if you will.
But Zverev’s win yesterday wasn’t just about his supernatural serving. He also edged Djokovic in the battle of the baseline, surprisingly winning plenty of the long rallies. The Serb was never allowed to set up shop in the middle of the court because Zverev was not only getting everything back, he was also putting the ball in uncomfortable spots.
Controlled aggression – the clichéd term that so often sounds like a vague, unachievable ideal – was exactly what won Zverev the match. He realised that the Serb needs just one tiny opening – an untimely error here, a 0-30 lead there — to run away with a match, so he decided that unbridled aggression wouldn’t be his go-to plan, the way it was against Federer.
Instead, he chose to muscle everything with as much depth and weight as he could muster. That’s where the forehand, in particular, showed vast improvement; while he didn’t go for a lot of winners off it, he kept hitting it to within inches of the lines, keeping his opponent perpetually on the backfoot.
He did so many things right in that blistering first set that Djokovic didn’t know how to respond. Even though Zverev’s level dropped considerably after he got the early break in the second, the World No. 1 was so rattled by then that he couldn’t take advantage.
Still, it needed a few more moments of inspiration – like the sensational forehand volley at 3-2, 0-30 that ensured he kept his break advantage –to get the job done. And when the finish line was in plain sight he showed off his awe-inspiring weapons once again, crunching a forehand winner and reflexing a Djokovic-esque backhand pass in the last game to end the biggest match of his career with a punctuation mark.
Zverev made rapid strides through the course of the tournament, and not just with his game. He apologised to the viciously pro-Frederer crowd for the stoppage in play during the second set tiebreak of the semi-final, even though he didn’t need to. He even called them ‘amazing and absolutely fair’, which they decidedly weren’t. And yesterday, he was effusive in his praise for Djokovic during his trophy acceptance speech, saying that he was thankful to the Serb for letting him “win one today”.
If Zverev is indeed the heir to the ‘throne’ of men’s tennis, then playing the crowd is a skill he will necessarily have to master. And he seems to have started doing that already – there’s no better way to win the hearts of biased fans than by going out of your way to put their heroes on a pedestal, and assuring them you have no intention of being a party pooper.
Admittedly though, there are still a few things in Zverev’s game that need ironing out. The forehand is very much a confidence shot; it was only after his thunderous performance against Isner that he started striking it with more depth. The net game is also a work in progress; while he pulled off a few stunning volleys yesterday, he needs to choose his approaches more wisely so that he doesn’t have to hit difficult volleys so often.
Perhaps most importantly though, he still has a tendency to get into a mid-match funk after registering a big lead, which has been his undoing at so many of the Slams. If Djokovic had been anywhere close to his best in the second set yesterday, he would have made Zverev pay for his passivity.
The great news is that he knows there’s still a long way to go. “I will do everything I can to get better, to compete with them (Djokovic and Federer) always... I still have a lot of things to improve…Hopefully next year, I’ll be able to play better tennis than I did this year, even though it’s been a good year,” Zverev said after the match.
It’s been a good year alright. Things seemed to have gone off the rails for the 21-year-old a couple of months ago, but this one week has turned everything around. Zverev is suddenly not just the youngest winner of the ATP Finals in a decade, but he’s also one of the favorites for the Australian Open which starts in a couple of months.
Or is it too early to say that? He was asked at his post-match presser whether he believes he now has the confidence to win Grand Slams. “I believe that my holiday is going to be very nice now, that’s what I believe,” Zverev replied, with more than a hint of weariness.
He probably has the right idea. The tennis world has talked enough about his failures at the Slams, and spent a lot of time wondering when he is going to conquer his five-set demons. But as Zverev celebrates his biggest win so far, maybe it’s time to just sit back and marvel at everything he has achieved in his short career already.
The forehand discussions can be put off until 2019. For now, it’s party time.
Medvedev dominated Djokovic 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to prevent the first calendar-year Grand Slam since 1969 and keep Djokovic level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal atop the career Slam title list.
Zverev, last year's US Open runner-up to now-injured Dominic Thiem, reached his fourth career Slam semi-final and could find himself matched against history-chasing Djokovic on Friday.
US Open: Djokovic scripts another comeback win to reach final, nears calendar-year Grand Slam milestone
He will face Daniil Medvedev in the final who defeated Felix Auger-Aliassime in the last four.