The last couple of weeks have seen Alexander Zverev go from strength to strength — reaching the final in Nice and making the third round in Paris before losing to man of the moment Dominic Thiem. After taking a week off after the French Open, the 19-year-old is now into the semifinals on home soil in Halle — and with a seeding at Wimbledon looming, the signs continue to point upwards and onwards for the tall German.
Alexander Zverev continues to steadily deliver on the promise that he made as a 17-year-old when he reached the semifinals in Hamburg in 2014.
Germany drummed up the hype machine when the lanky teenager defeated Robin Haase, Mikhail Youzhny, Santiago Giraldo and Tobias Kamke to make the last four in his hometown before ultimately falling to David Ferrer. While tennis might not have as much of a place in the German public’s consciousness as it did a decade or two ago, Zverev has remained aware of the raised expectations placed on him over the course of the past two years.
After his breakout run, the German continued to make his mark, but at a steady pace, rather than an explosive rate. Solid results in ATP tournaments went hand in hand with disappointments in qualifying at the Australian and French Opens in 2015.
“Let’s put it [this] way, Germany is always looking for the next Boris Becker or Michael Stich even though we had really good players coming afterwards,” Zverev explained on Wednesday. “Tommy Haas was No. 2 in the world, Rainer Schüttler was No. 4, same goes for Nicolas Kiefer — so Germany never really had a problem with tennis players…We never had terrible players but no doubt, what we had in the past with Steffi, Boris and Michael, that was… Steffi won so many Grand Slams — Boris, too, and Michael. It’s tough to return to these glory days.
“Overall, it’s nice that I do get attention as young as I am and that people do care about what I do. Hence, I’m seeing the positives rather than the negatives.”
It wasn’t until the grass season last summer that Zverev truly found his footing, as he recorded a number of quality victories, including his first main draw win at a Grand Slam at Wimbledon. Now, one year later, 19-year-old has made another big leap forward. With wins over Viktor Troicki and Marcos Baghdatis, the German has defeated two solid players on grass — in fact, two players he lost to this time last year on the lawns of Stuttgart and Nottingham.
“One year can — and should — change a lot at this age,” Zverev said. “I’m returning a little better on the grass and I believe I’m stronger now — and that’s why I’m probably able to get a few more balls back. Last year, I was in the first main draw of a [Grand] Slam at Wimbledon; things are different now — I just feel more ready to play some of the big matches.”
Zverev has had his fair share of big matches in recent months, coming close to upsetting Tomas Berdych and most notably, Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells. While some thought Zverev might face a couple of bumps in his road ahead after burying “that” volley in the net when he had match point against the nine-time French Open champion in the desert, one of the leading members of the ATP NextGen posted a solid clay season — with Thiem and Roger Federer as his only real roadblocks.
As fate would have it, Zverev’s next opponent will be Federer, and Thiem might end end up waiting for the winner in the finals. The German No. 2 isn’t looking that far ahead, since the challenge of playing his idol on grass will prove to be a difficult enough task.
“Well, I’m playing well, but he is the greatest player of all time, particularly on grass — so, we’ll see,” the 19-year-old said after his quarterfinal win over Baghdatis. “I’m just happy with the way I’m playing on grass right now — and I’m looking forward to the semifinals against Roger.”
The top seed in Halle was full of praise for the young German — like so many of his veteran colleagues on tour — but also felt it was important to exercise care when it come to burdening a young talent with too many expectations due to premature praise.
“We can gauge his potential because we hit with him and we also played matches against him,” Federer said. “The danger playing him is that he’s young [and] that’s not because he doesn’t have anything to lose. He has pressure since everyone is saying, ‘He’s great, he’s playing wonderfully — he’ll be No. 1.’ I never said he’ll be No. 1 — I don’t think you should say that about someone that young; it’s not fair. You’re not going to become No 1 overnight. I’m convinced he’ll be Top 10 — the question is whether he’ll be Top 10 for 10 years in a row or for one week. That’s a huge difference and that’s something that people need to put into the right context when a top player makes that assessment. I believe he’ll definitely be Top 10 at some point but he wants more than that and we shouldn’t be putting too much pressure on the shoulders of the young players because they’re supposed to play freely. It was the same case with me when I was younger — I was the ‘new Sampras’ and I hadn’t even won a title yet, I hadn’t done anything of note whereas he had 12, 14 slams under his belt.
“The danger of playing the young players is that they’re firing on the big points. They haven’t quite figured out their own favorite shots at the beginning of their careers — neither have we and that makes it somewhat dangerous. As they mature, we can assess them better — hence [Zverev] has to make good use of the next year or two when players aren’t that familiar with him yet.”
Zverev’s hunger and drive to improve is palpable both when he talks to the media and when he is on court, yet said ambition manifests in different ways. Very often, the 19-year-old is his own worst critic; where in press, he tends to be serious and composed beyond his age with most of his explanations being no-nonsense rather than embroiled monologues — on court, the teenager very much behaves his age.
There are racket throws, there are discussions with umpires, there are fines.
Zverev is every bit as emotive and occasionally irascible as his 19 years would have you believe, and most of the time, that’s perfectly fine — according to a certain Mr. Federer, who was known to flare up quickly when he was half his current age.
“It’s a bit like walking a tightrope,” Federer said. “Of course, you waste some energy but on the other hand, you push yourself. I think it’s important and nice to be like that when you are young. You learn to calm down a little as the years go by, which is good for his career but a shame for the media and the fans, so enjoy him as long as he is as lively as he is at the moment. It won’t be that way forever, sadly.
“I think it’s good when he’s like that. You really have to live this feeling that you really want it and that’s the only way to make it to the top. I [had a temper] like that, too, but luckily, I figured out that it’s better not to stay that way.”
While Zverev continues to wait for his first Top 10 win, he has secured another little milestone by virtue of reaching the semifinals in Halle — he’ll likely be seeded for the first time at a Grand Slam, merely one year after playing his first main draw.
“It definitely makes a difference because the possibility of playing [Novak] Djokovic, [Andy] Murray or Federer in the first round is gone,” Zverev said. “To play someone who is ranked below you in the first two rounds is a good thing to have at the back of your mind. I think it’s really important to have that at the beginning of my career. There’s a big difference in the level of tennis between this year and last year. I see it and my team notices it as well; that’s why I’m glad that I, let’s say, made another little step forward.”
Before he heads to London, though, he’ll be targeting his first semifinal appearance here in Germany.
In Rome, he was unable to exploit the movement of an ailing Federer, and here in Halle, the young German will try to go one better. Unlike during his quarterfinal against Baghdatis, though, he probably won’t have the undivided support of the crowd when he faces the eight-time Gerry Weber Open Champion.
If he can pull off the upset, he’ll be on the map for good — even in Germany.