Can a mid-match choke be good for you?
Alexander Zverev probably wasn’t thinking about that when he went back to his mark to start the third set against Roger Federer at the Shanghai Masters. At that moment, the fact that he was in a third set at all must have felt like an unqualified disaster for Zverev; this was exactly where he didn’t need to be after a year full of inexplicable collapses.
Zverev had three match points on his own serve at 6-5, 40-0 in the second set, but he lost them all. Then he had two more match points in the tiebreaker (one of them on his serve), and he lost them too. Federer, on his part, had summoned his most magical tennis at just the right time to save those match points, but that didn’t take away from the fact that Zverev had allowed the Swiss to get into the rally on each occasion. He hadn’t been able to find the big, unreturnable first serve when he needed it the most.
Federer eventually had a set point of his own, and he promptly won it with a big first serve. It was almost as if he was telling Zverev, “That’s how it is done.”
Having to play a decider in a match that had rested squarely on his racquet in the second set seemed like the appropriate climax to Zverev’s season of missed opportunities. In the Roland Garros quarter-final, he had the first set in his grasp before he started playing scared, which allowed Novak Djokovic to come back and establish control. Something similar happened in the US Open fourth round against Diego Schwartzman, where Zverev had several chances to go up a set and a break but failed to take them. Last week in Beijing against Stefanos Tsitsipas, Zverev was up an early break and later had three set points, but couldn’t seal the deal.
Now, against Federer, he had gone a step further, and failed to close from match points up. The descent seemed to have reached its logical conclusion.
The pattern was unmistakable: Whenever Zverev got ahead in a closely contested match against a quality opponent, his arm would freeze and he’d hand the initiative right back. It wouldn’t take a lot for the wheels to come off; it could be a missed forehand, a nervous double fault, or in the case of the Tsitsipas match in Beijing, a slightly later-than-normal Hawkeye challenge from the opponent. And when the inevitable collapse came, it would almost invariably be accompanied by a racquet smash and a look of pure misery that would remain plastered on his face till the end of the match.
Against Federer though, the racquet smash never came. Instead, Zverev did something at the start of the third set that we had forgotten he had the ability to do — he hit the reset button and resumed playing exactly as he had to get to a position of strength in the first place.
In the crucial first game of the decider, Zverev hit a couple of big serves and forehands to hold with authority and go 1-0 up. Then, when Federer stepped up to serve, Zverev got almost every return back in play, and picked the Swiss off at the net with his deadly passing shots. It was totally against the run of play, but Zverev got the early break to halt Federer’s momentum just when it was threatening to go into the stratosphere.
That Zverev didn’t go into meltdown mode despite squandering so many chances to finish the match probably had something to do with who he was playing. Federer has often spoken very highly of Zverev, to the extent that the internet has become flush with jokes and memes about how the German is his ‘son’. And Zverev has responded by regularly playing his best tennis against the 20-time Slam champion, almost as though he wants to make his idol proud.
A couple of weeks ago at the Laver Cup, Federer and Rafael Nadal acted as mentors for Zverev during the latter’s crucial match against Milos Raonic. Federer was heard telling Zverev, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted to see positive emotion and body language from him at all times. It worked at the time, as Zverev won the match and clinched the Cup for Team Europe.
But that was a semi-exhibition, and when Zverev got back to serious tennis in Beijing, he seemed to have forgotten the advice; he was the very personification of negativity the entire second set of his match against Tsitsipas. Did Federer’s presence across the net in Shanghai remind Zverev of what he was missing in Beijing?
“I thought he didn’t show any frustrations or too much negativity,” Federer said of Zverev after the match. “That was impressive, because he has the tendency to get a bit down on himself. Especially this season, he hasn’t been playing maybe so well, so that impressed me the most.”
Strangely, it was Federer rather than Zverev who showed more frustration in the third set. After missing a shot, Federer angrily swatted at a ball that (accidentally) went sailing in the direction of the crowd. The gesture earned him a rare point penalty from chair umpire Nacho Forcadell, but Federer refused to take it lying down. He launched into a heated argument with Forcadell that lasted well over a minute and whipped the crowd into a frenzy — all while Zverev looked like a picture of calm at the other end.
— Tennis TV (@TennisTV) October 11, 2019
That calmness was a feature of Zverev’s tennis throughout the match. The popular opinion about the German has always been that he needs to play aggressively in order to maximise the returns from his natural gifts (most importantly his height). And in his earlier wins over Federer — most notably the one at the 2018 ATP Finals — Zverev had indeed taken the game to the Swiss by going for his shots at the first opportunity.
But in Shanghai, Zverev played a lot more like he is accustomed to. He was patient at the baseline, and focussed on the weight of shot rather than painting the lines. The forehand was consistently deep even if it didn’t always have a lot of pace, while the backhand was effortlessly forceful as always. And when Federer made the mistake of coming to the net on anything less than a sizzling approach shot, Zverev made him pay.
Federer was a surprisingly poor 19 out of 40 on net points for the night, and a lot of it had to do with the 22-year-old’s nearly flawless passing.
None of this would have been enough if Zverev’s serving struggles of recent times had shown up, but fortunately for him, they never did. Zverev had a surreal 89 percent first serve percentage in the first set and 84 percent in the third (he was 78 percent for the contest overall), winning 77 percent of those points. Most importantly, he made just one double fault all match.
In effect, Zverev played like how a torch-bearer of the sport’s evolution should: Rallying with depth and consistency, using his long limbs to redirect wide balls, and pulling the trigger efficiently when needed. Zverev showed in this match that his high base level of play is enough to go toe-to-toe with the world’s best as long as he doesn’t drop his forehand short, and that his serve is as much of a bailout weapon as any 6’6” player’s serve should be.
This is the brand of tennis that would be easier for him to replicate week-to-week than the furiously attacking game he displayed at the ATP Finals last year. Zverev is never going to be an ultra-aggressive player over an entire season, and it is time for both him and the rest of the tennis world to come to terms with that.
“I am finally starting to play the way I should play, really,” Zverev said after the match. “I was playing really defensive the whole year round and not with a lot of confidence. (I am) finally maybe starting to play some better tennis and hopefully I can continue this way.”
Playing within his comfort zone and winning a match against Federer is a good sign for Zverev’s future, despite all that has happened this year. And the fact that he was able to turn things around even after wasting those five match points in the second set has got to be seen as a huge positive.
A win like this can have more long-lasting effect than a dominant straight-sets thumping. The match could have joined the list of tennis’ most infamous chokes of all time, but instead it turned out to be a moment of catharsis for the still-young German. That’s what happens when you play with a clear head and without negativity; you trust your game and stick to your guns, which is often enough to overcome any unforeseen stumble.
It is one thing to know you can win when everything is going your way, but quite another to win even after things have gone horribly wrong. In that sense, the mid-match choke against Federer was probably the best thing to have happened to Zverev in 2019.
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Updated Date: Oct 12, 2019 10:52:39 IST