When Alexander Zverev won the ATP Finals for the first time last year, at age 21, it seemed as if he was on the cusp of reaching the zenith of men’s tennis. He had already collected his second Masters 1000 last year (Madrid) in addition to three other ATP titles.
Coach Ivan Lendl was by his side when he lifted the Nitto ATP Finals hardware. Lendl himself had won five of those titles. Sitting at a career-high of world no. 3, we were looking at the answer to the Big 3 in slams. But 2019 has been a downhill battle for the German talent.
Still riding the success of the maiden title at the ATP Finals, the 22-year-old got to the fourth round of the Australian Open. Although slightly disappointing, it was still one round improvement from the previous year. He followed up with a finals appearance in Acapulco, losing to a disciplined Nick Kyrgios.
Early round exits at Indian Wells and Miami closed out a mixed bag early hard-court season. However, with the continued relationship with eight-slam legend Ivan Lendl, and Zverev’s brilliant track record on clay, hope was placed on the French Open.
Having reached the quarterfinals at the French Open before, it seemed as if Roland Garros would be the venue for his first grand slam triumph. Although the NextGen sensation put in a disappointing warm-up clay season compared with the previous year, ‘Sascha’ Zverev did manage to win his only title this year at Geneva, an answer to all the criticism that has been hurled his way all year long.
He had the daunting task of facing Novak Djokovic in the quarters at the French. So many of the next generation players have wilted when tasked with taking on any of the Big Three—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Djokovic—however, Zverev has clocked in wins over them in the past, a rare feat in the world of men’s tennis.
The 11-time ATP title winner started out his match with Djokovic well enough, looking the stronger of the two in the quarterfinal. However, like so many other players below age 30, he lost confidence in the game. And if there’s one thing the Big 3 can smell, it’s a weakness, and here is where Djokovic jumped at his chance, running away with the match.
The last two easy sets were an example of why promising players like Zverev receive the kind of reproach that they do: 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. The German player has dealt with several personal issues this year that have impeded his progress, including health complications for his father (his long-time coach), breaking up with his girlfriend, parting ways with his agent Patricio Apey, and now first criticizing Lendl in a public press conference, which helped both come to the decision that their personalities were not connecting.
"I have a lot of belief in Sascha, who is still very young. I think that one day he may become a great player, but currently, he has some off-court issues that make it difficult to work in a way that is consistent with my philosophy," Lendl explains in a statement.
Lendl coached Andy Murray during the time the Scotsman achieved his greatest rewards, including three grand slams, the ATP Finals trophy, two gold medals at the Olympics, and the world No. 1 ranking. Bringing him on board seemed to be the sign that Zverev would get to the next level.
"I have nothing but respect for him. We worked well for ten months and it’s been very nice having him by my side, winning London. Obviously, I have great respect for him, but you guys probably know as well, we both felt like we were going different directions," Zverev said.
"I wish him nothing but the best. I think he will find a player very soon. And it’s also about personalities and maybe we didn’t fit yet. Maybe it will change but for now, it’s over." After a brief, disappointing grass season, the world No.
5 will be looking to turn things around in the U.S. Open prep season. He is currently only No. 9 in the ATP Road to London standings. Hard court suits his game, although several analysts have suggested that he adopt a more aggressive game, rather than relying on the defence tactics that have gotten him only so far.
"At some point, his game was figured out by his opponents. He has not developed it. Even Federer plays differently now compared to five years ago. You need to constantly evolve,” said John McEnroe, a critique that Zverev does not appreciate.
"I do not think so, as well as my father and Ivan Lendl. Bullshit. Boris and McEnroe were at the net for their whole lifetime. I will not do it. It's different," Zverev said in a press conference. It’s clear that Alexander Zverev is still working out operations within his own team.
He will likely continue a bumpy road for the rest of the year until things fall into place for him. Sadly, he remains a study case in why the next generation still can’t find answers at the grand slam level.