WASHINGTON, August 8, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
In art and poetry, the German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, personality is everything. Perhaps, after watching Alexander Zverev last week, tennis should be added to that list, too.
The 21-year-old from Germany, born to Russian parents, with the rockstar appeal, sandy-blonde mop-top hair, and (as I learned from interviewing him) a wry sense of humor, is currently ranked No. 3 in the world, behind Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, two of the best that the sport of tennis has ever produced. Once again, he’s picking up right where he left off last summer, as one of hottest hard-court players on the ATP World Tour with his sights focused on winning the U.S. Open later this month. The young and mature tennis wunderkind, affectionately known as Sascha, plays with great confidence and authority – not to mention possessing a powerful serve – and, always, with a keen instinct that’s well beyond his years. Although his play at times looks effortless, it’s always entertaining.
On Sunday, Zverev added his second career ATP 500 series championship to his C.V. (which also includes three Masters 1000 trophies) as he successfully defended his Citi Open crown with a straight-set victory over 19-year-old Australian upstart Alex de Minaur, 6-2, 6-4, in Washington, D.C. It was his 41st tour win of the season. Zverev dropped just one set in his five matches, and played with plenty of confidence and authority as he moved about the hard-court surface on the Stadium court at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, where he was well liked by fans. In the final, Zverev took control of de Minaur from the outset, breaking his opponent in his first two service games. It prompted this comment from de Minaur afterward: “Today, he came out blazing and sort of was too good for me.”
The Citi Open title was the third tour-level title this year for the versatile Zverev to go with trophies he lifted earlier in Madrid and Munich on clay. He’s won nine ATP titles overall, but is still looking for his first Grand Slam triumph.
From observing him during the week against Malek Jaziri, his older brother Mischa, Kei Nishikori, Stefanos Tsitsipas and, finally, de Minaur, I couldn’t help but think that every time the tall (6-feet-6-inch, 1.98 m) and lean (189-pound, 86 kg) Zverev walked on the court, he painted word pictures with his tennis racquet while conquering all who came in his path. It’s worth noting that his ballet-like artistry on the tennis court was simply a thing of beauty that’s worth appreciating. Along with Tsitsipas and de Minaur, Zverev represents the future of men’s tennis.
As Zverev readies to defend his Masters 1000 Rogers Cup title in Toronto this week, beginning with a second-round matchup against the 116th-ranked Bradley Klahn of the United States, one thing that impressed me about him during his week-long stay in the nation’s capital city was how he handled himself during his daily press conferences. Sascha came across as both relaxed and charming – even showing a keen instinct like he does on the tennis court by being quick with his responses to reporter’s questions – and, he exuded a playful side of himself that not many get to witness. I sensed that Zverev enjoyed answering the media’s questions every day as he sat front and center on a raised platform before us, no matter how straight-forward, serious or light-hearted the questions might be. Each time, I came away feeling I learned something new about both sides of Zverev’s persona, as a highly successful tennis athlete and as someone whom many throughout the sporting world idolize.
Here’s a sampling of some of Zverev’s responses and witticisms:
• Asked about his pursuit of Nadal and Federer, the world’s No.1 and No.2-ranked players: “I don’t think Roger’s too concerned about it. I think he’s somewhere in Switzerland right now enjoying, I don’t know, milk from his cow. From his own cow. … I’ve said it a few times – Roger and Rafa are still the best out there right now. They are still winning Grand Slams. They are still winning the biggest titles. … Saying that I’m at their level is something that wouldn’t be fair to them.”
• On handling the pressure of being the defending champion at the Citi Open and being ranked in the Top 5 in the world: “It’s means you come here, you know you have a few points to defend, and you still come out here to win. It’s feels great. It shows, I think, mental strength as well. I think it shows a little bit of maturity. … It was a fantastic week for me.”
“Last year was all just the beginning. This year I’m proving that I’m actually at this level, that I’m playing pretty consistent.”
• Asked after the semifinals, when it was pointed out by a reporter that at age 21 he was the “adult” on the court against the 19-year-old Tsitsipas, and the age of the other semifinalists were 19 and 20, he spit out: “I’m the only one who’s allowed to buy a drink here in the U.S., right?”
• When asked what it’s like being a role model, Zverev quipped: “Am I a role model for you? Well, you can grow a full beard and I can’t, so.”
• On playing his older brother Mischa, Sascha reflected: “I enjoyed the moment. We played great tennis. I think we both played close to our best. I just enjoyed it out there … as much as I could. I hope everyone else did as well.
“I think knowing each other, that’s why the level was so high. You kind of knew an easy shot, he’s going to go there, I’m going to go there. … We just had to enjoy the moment as much as we can and the level was pretty high. I played well, and I think Mischa played pretty well also. For us, it was more enjoyment.”
• On who might replace the Big Four of Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, an obvious but necessary question to ask the young World No. 3, Zverev didn’t hesitate when he said: “I think it’s natural that the higher you get in the rankings, the more people look at you, and the more people kind of want to play you and they want to play you at your best, and they want to beat you, no matter what.”
• On being surprised by the success he’s enjoyed at this early stage of his career, Zverev said: “I have put in a lot of work into becoming the player I am. I still am. Of course, I am happy every time I win, but I also know what it takes to be where I am.”