The stars had aligned for Alexander Zverev. No Andy Murray, no Novak Djokovic, not even defending champion Stan Wawrinka. In all, five of the top 11 men’s players were missing from this year’s US Open, giving the rest to stake their claim. With both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal grouped in the top half of the draw, the bottom half was brimming with opportunity.
The 20-year-old German is having the season of his life. Five titles make him the joint most successful player on tour this year, a tally matched only by Federer. The list includes two Masters titles, won at Rome and Montreal – the latter came against the Swiss maestro himself.
This was supposed to be Zverev’s chance to prove his Grand Slam pedigree. And he certainly looked a part, dressed in the stylish, striped retro Adidas outfit designed by rapper Pharrell Williams.
But the German failed to walk the walk.
Up against fellow 20-year-old Borna Coric in the second round, Zverev fell short, going down 3-6, 7-5, 7-6, 7-6 in three hours and 26 minutes to continue his underwhelming run at the Majors.
“I know that I could have done some big things here. I know that I could have done something that I haven’t done before,” he said after the match. “But I won’t. It’s just as simple as that.”
Zverev and Coric have been competing since their junior days. They had met in New York itself, at the prestigious hard courts at Flushing Meadows, in the semi-final of the boys’ US Open back in 2013 – as a pair of 16-year-olds. On that occasion, Coric, who is about five months older, came from behind to record a 4-6, 6-3, 6-0 win and went on to claim the title.
It was a significant win that marked his rise to the professional stream – long before Zverev could make a telling mark at the senior level. And just as Zverev is presently pipped to be the ‘next big thing’ in men’s tennis, Coric has already been through that curve.
A year after the title, Coric upset then World No 3 Rafael Nadal. In 2015 he took apart Andy Murray before getting the better of Nadal again a year later. On Wednesday, Zverev became Coric’s sixth top-10 scalp.
When Coric came onto the scene, people were quick to draw strenuous comparisons with Djokovic. Like Djokovic, he is a defensive baseliner, has Balkan roots, similar lean build and close-cropped hair. But even as a teenager, Djokovic was relentless in his pursuit. Coric, meanwhile, the first of the new generation to be touted as the ‘next big thing’, couldn’t quite take the rigours of the professional tour in his stride. He slipped from the high 33 rank he reached to the 61 he currently sits at.
Up stepped Zverev, all 6’6 inches of him, to take on and often uproot the bigger names in the game. His march this season has been phenomenal, as he’s broken into the top-10 without much fuss.
But at the Grand Slams, Zverev has found no such luck – reaching only as far as the fourth round of Wimbledon this year.
The five-set competition is designed to test not just the skill, but consistency and endurance. Zverev moves really well for someone so tall. But the constant sprinting, lunging and stroke play at such high centre of gravity puts the joints under immense pressure. One of the reasons why tennis isn’t a teenager’s sport anymore is the physical grind players go through, and it comes only with years of training, experience and match practice.
In the third round of the Australian Open, Zverev seemingly had the upper hand against Nadal. Then came a rally on the German’s serve that lasted an eternity. Zverev won the point, but it cost him dearly as he began to cramp and struggle. Nadal, a hardy and rejuvenated Spaniard ready to fight till the end was prepared to pounce and win the tie.
At the Cincinnati Masters just last week, Zverev crashed out in the first round, mainly due to exhaustion. Against Coric, despite his frame now wired with lean muscle, there was not enough fuel in the tank for Zverev to consistently power his way through from the baseline. He mixed in 58 unforced errors with 43 winners. Which was a pity, given that, in the end analysis he lost only three points lesser than Coric (148 to 151).
More for Zverev to rue was the fact that he converted only one of the 11 break point opportunities. Three of which came in the fourth set, when Coric was serving at 5-6, 0-40. None were converted.
“It’s upsetting. Today was upsetting. The way I played was upsetting. The tournament so far is upsetting for me. I just played very, very bad in the second and third set. I should have won the third. I definitely should have won the fourth,” he said.
When asked what he needs to do to ensure the season is considered a success, his reply is sharp: “I just lost (in) the second round of a major where I shouldn’t have lost, so I’m not thinking about the rest of the year.”
At 20, Zverev still has plenty of time and chances to get more Grand Slam experience under his belt to become a serious threat. He only had to look across the net on Wednesday: Coric has lived that life cycle of a young player burdened with expectation and stifled by it. But the only way up, is through the struggle.
Published Date: Aug 31, 2017 05:12 pm | Updated Date: Aug 31, 2017 05:12 pm