WASHINGTON, November 19, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
When 21-year-old Alexander Zverev stunned World No. 1 Novak Djokovic 6-4, 6-3 in the championship of the Nitto ATP Finals at the O2 Arena in London on Sunday night, not only did he become the youngest champion of the year-end final in a decade – since Djokovic in 2008 – but it represented by far his biggest title moment.
Emotionally drained from one last 16-shot rally, capped by a brilliantly-placed backhanded passing shot for a winner, Zverev fell to the ground following match point – although it was hard to tell whether it was in disbelief or joy, or both. The five-time champion Djokovic came over to Zverev’s side of the net to congratulate the new champion and the pair embraced. It was an exceptional victory and an unexpected one, too. After all, Djokovic beat Zverev 6-4, 6-1 in the round-robin stage just a few days earlier.
When you start the week without socks and end it as the #NittoATPFinals champ 😂🧦
Sascha might be onto something… 🧐 pic.twitter.com/8MXQEflKBK
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) 19. November 2018
“This is the biggest title of my career so far,” said Zverev, seeded third, who showed much maturity in beating six-time champion Roger Federer, 37, in straight sets during Saturday’s semifinal round, then lifted his game to greater heights during his triumph over the 31–year-old Djokovic. The Hamburg native finished the 80-minute final with 10 service aces, won 26 of 33 first-serve points and dropped just 13 points on his serve. He broke Djokovic four times in six opportunities after the Serbian had won all 36 of his service games this week, facing just two break points during his first four matches. Zverev outpointed Djokovic 57-46, and he won by playing with great confidence and authority – and a keen instinct that’s well beyond his years.
“This trophy means a lot, everything, to all the players,” said Zverev, who became the third German to lift the ATP Finals trophy. Boris Becker won titles in 1988, 1992 and 1995, and Michael Stich in 1993. “I mean, you only have so many chances of winning it. You play against the best players only.
“How I played today, how I won it, for me it’s just amazing.”
Indeed, and in accomplishing what he did over the weekend, Zverev became the first player to beat both Djokovic and Federer during the same ATP Finals. Plus, he’s the first player to beat the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the semifinals and final of the year-end championship since Andre Agassi accomplished the feat in 1990.
“It’s quite astonishing, winning this title, beating two such players back-to-back, Roger and Novak, in semifinals and final. It’s means so much,” said Zverev, who will finish 2018 ranked No. 4 in the world for the second consecutive year. “I’m incredibly happy and incredibly proud of this moment right now.”
Remarkable season for Djokovic
The lost dashed Djokovic’s hope of completing what truly has been a remarkable season, that turned itself around when, ranked as low as No. 22 in June, he won Wimbledon and the Cincinnati Masters, then continued with titles at the U.S. Open and the Shanghai Masters. Djokovic raised his ranking to No. 1 by the end of the season, surpassing Rafael Nadal. He will retain No. 1 going into 2019.
A round of 👏 for @DjokerNole‘s impressive 2018 season 💪
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) 18. November 2018
After the match, Djokovic spoke eloquently of Zverev, saying “There’s a lot of similarities in terms of trajectory of professional tennis, in our careers. Hopefully, he can surpass me. I sincerely wish him that. He seems like someone that is very dedicated. Without a doubt, he’s a really nice person, someone that gets along very well with everyone.”
With his rock-star appeal and sandy-blonde mop-top hair, the 6-foot-6-inch (1.98 m) Zverev has a wry sense of humor that came out during the trophy presentation, “looking and sounding very comfortable with a microphone in hand,” as tweeted by New York Times tennis columnist Christopher Clarey. “This is turning into an unofficial third set.”
Along with thanking his team and family, Zverev was gracious in his praise of Djokovic, both as a player and a person. “I’d like to congratulate Novak on a great week and the second half of the season,” he said. “You’ve barely lost a match and I’m actually very thankful you lost to me today.
“We’ve played twice this week. Everyone knows how good of a tennis player you are, but I want to mention how good of a person you are as well. We’ve had so many talks, not only about tennis, but about other stuff, about life, about all different kinds of subjects. I’m not going to mention the ones we talked about, but yeah, you’re also a very good sharer of this world.”
Sascha: “Ivan, thanks for joining the team. I think it’s working out quite well for now” … and Lendl kinda smiles! 😂 pic.twitter.com/FhSsvPpEXR
— Genny SS (@genny_ss) 18. November 2018
Looking back, I was impressed by Zverev’s demeanor and how humble he seemed after his victory over Djokovic. After all, he had just won his first year-end crown and 10th tour-level title overall. It capped a season which also included trophy wins at Munich, Madrid, and Washington, D.C., plus the hiring of Hall of Famer Ivan Lendl as his coach. During a brief court-side interview with ESPN’s Brad Gilbert, just before the celebratory confetti rained down upon the O2 Arena, Zverev confessed, “I still want to improve. I hope this is just the beginning for me.”
No doubt, Sunday’s victory is a big boost for Zverev’s confidence. Whether it translates into contending for – and winning – a Grand Slam in 2019 remains to be seen. One thing, though: The future looks bright for Sascha.