Is it easier to be inspired by your peers, or by your predecessors and seniors? For Naomi Osaka, the answer is clear – she didn’t want to be left behind after Stefanos Tsitsipas and Frances Tiafoe, her fellow members of the 22-and-under club, posted breakthrough wins yesterday.
“I was watching all these kids winning and saw Tsitsipas beat Federer last night and was like, ‘whoa’. I was watching him and also Tiafoe, they were playing really well. They came out here against the top players and won. I wanted to do that as well,” she said after defeating Anastasija Sevastova in her own fourth-round match.
Did Alexander Zverev also watch Tsitsipas and Tiafoe bring their best tennis to the biggest stage? If yes, did he learn anything from them?
Not if today’s fourth-round match is any indication. Zverev knows how to play in the best-of-three-sets format, but when the stakes are the highest, when it really matters, he continues to produce inexplicable stinkers.
The German suffered a dispiriting 1-6, 1-6, 6-7 loss to Milos Raonic in the Australian Open on Monday, and many would say he is running out of excuses for his Slam failures.
Technically, this was progress for Zverev; he had never reached the Australian Open fourth round before. But you don’t expect the fourth seed to be content with a fourth-round showing. If anything, this was a regression for Zverev considering how listless he looked for a majority of the match.
The doubts had resurfaced in the second round itself, as Zverev took five painstaking sets to put away the relatively low-ranked Jeremy Chardy. But then the straight sets win over Alex Bolt followed, and it looked like he was finally ready to announce himself in Majors.
The first game against Raonic seemed like confirmation of that, as Zverev got the break and ostensibly gained control of the set. But then his game fell off the rails for no rhyme or reason, and he failed to win another game until mid-way through the second set.
The ‘no rhyme or reason’ part was particularly galling. The fans, the commentators, presumably his own team — everyone wondered why exactly was he playing so badly. At one point, the commentators surmised he may have been carrying an injury of some sort, since he looked a tad sluggish on the court. But that suggestion was swiftly shot down by Zverev in his post-match press conference.
“I played bad. The first two sets especially I played horrible. It’s tough to name one thing; I didn’t serve well, I didn’t play well from the baseline,” was Zverev’s assessment of his own play.
If one is completely honest, ‘horrible’ is actually a flattering term to use for how Zverev played in those first two sets. It wasn’t just that he was making errors and double faults by the truckload; it was also the fact that he had taken on the appearance of a moping, cursing, racquet-smashing impostor who had no business being on a tennis court.
Zverev didn’t look like he belonged to a Grand Slam fourth-round match. That’s an unfortunate thing to say about a World No 4.
Contrast this with Tsitsipas, who fought tooth and nail against Federer until the Swiss legend could wave his wand no more. Or with Tiafoe, who held off one quality opponent after another despite looking like he was on his last legs hours before the end of each of his matches. Or even with Alex De Minaur, who forced Rafael Nadal to come up with his best tennis despite being hopelessly overmatched in size and skill.
These are talented 20 somethings, just like Zverev, and they are trying to learn the ropes of professional tennis, just the way Zverev is. But for some reason they seem to be far more mature than the German when it comes to Grand Slam preparation; they seem to have realised, way before him, that it takes more than just forehands and serves to get the job done at the top level.
Could part of the reason for that be the unjustified sense of entitlement that has crept into Zverev? He was asked in his presser, by an admittedly ill-informed reporter, whether he had ever smashed his racquet before. It was a tactless question, yes, but you expected a more contrite reply than what it received.
“Have you never watched my matches? You should watch my matches,” Zverev growled, in an unmistakably holier-than-thou tone.
Zverev has had far more success outside the Slams than his peers, so some of the baggage he carries is understandable. Call it the price of success, if you will; right now he is caught between the legendary achievements of the top players and the sporadic breakthroughs of the young guys. And since he’s just 21, he may not have yet grasped which group he truly belongs to, and what kind of expectations he should set for himself.
But by believing that smashing racquets is his birthright and that everyone needs to get used to it, he is only making things harder for himself. Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic didn’t get to where they are by smashing racquets; they got to where they are by standing up to the challenges of every harsh environment they faced.
One can keep going back to the cauldron-like atmosphere that Tsitsipas faced as the Melbourne crowd tried to will Federer across the line. Almost every good Federer shot was greeted by a deafening roar, and on some occasions, there were even distracting calls from the crowd in the middle of rallies. To top all of that, Tsitsipas kept facing one break point after another as the legend at the other side of the net threatened to cut short his fairytale run.
Can you imagine Zverev being in that situation? Is it even remotely conceivable that he would have handled everything as well as Tsitsipas did?
Zverev was also asked after the match whether he tries to compete with the other players of his age, whether there is any sort of rivalry among them about who goes the deepest in the big tournaments. Everyone had obviously heard what Osaka had said hours ago, so the question was a natural follow-up — especially after his latest horror show, when he was bound to be desperately looking for inspiration.
But Zverev would disappoint in that regard too.
“Not really. I mean I don’t do that too much… This is one of many tournaments. You can’t really compete every single week, saying, ‘oh you made the semis there, quarters there, and I’ve gotta beat that’. Obviously, I want to be the best, but yeah, not this week.”
The man is ambitious, clearly. But it is tempting to wonder whether he is too ambitious for his own good at the moment. Tsitsipas and Tiafoe have shown this week that staying committed to the task is the best way to succeed on the big stage. It wouldn’t kill Zverev to take a lesson or two from them, even if they are less successful than him.
Updated Date: Jan 21, 2019 18:59:28 IST