Earlier today, I posted an article about Dominic Thiem and his steady rise to the top of the game. In that article, I briefly mentioned the up and coming teenage German prodigy, Alexander Zverev stating that we may have a reason to talk about him soon. I never imagined it would be this soon. If you want to read that article, you’ll find it here.
These two had only met once before, coming into today’s semifinals. That was last month in Rome, where Federer won a competitive tussle. Despite Federer’s glaring lack of match form and his struggle with injuries this year, I didn’t think Zverev had developed well enough to take him out on grass. This was not just any grass court either. This was Halle. A tournament Federer has dominated even more so than Wimbledon. He entered this tournament in pursuit of his ninth title. Yet all of the presumptions were thrown out the window, once the match got underway.
Since he got on the scene, Zverev has consistently evoked dual images of Marat Safin, and Bjorn Borg, in my mind. Still a teenager, Zverev with his shock of dirty blonde hair, evokes a certain boyish charm eerily similar to that written about the angelic assassin, when he first strutted into the limelight. Yet his temperament and the way he lumbers on court does have a Safin feel to it. He’s confident, he certainly knows he’s good and he believes he belongs on the same court as the best. Oh and he’s hungry for success. That makes for a dangerous combination. I believe I’ve talked about Zverev’s backhand before. I have never seen a more beautiful weapon. Even though it is clear his game is still developing, that shot is one of the most effective shots in the game already. For a two-handed player, the variety he has on that shot is amazing. Taking a page out of Agassi’s book, when describing Federer’s own backhand, Zverev’s backhand is the greater of two evils in this case. His forehand can be devastating as well.
He brought all of this to the table today, and then some. Zverev served brilliantly – there were no breaks in the first set – and that shot set him up for easy winners, over and over again. He also returned and moved well, putting Federer under pressure and surprising the great Swiss with his defensive game. In the tiebreaker, it was the young upstart, not the seasoned veteran, who was the steadier of the two. Taking that first set was key to taking the match, which he later on did by playing a very good third set, and serving it out.
What about Federer? The all time leader in Grand Slams, has not been having a pleasant season. It is hard to read into this loss, just as it was last week in Stuttgart. This is only his second tournament back. However, Federer looked rather lethargic for long stretches of this match. He lacked his spry movement and would often let go of shots he has built a reputation for tracking down, throughout the course of his illustrious career. Even his legendary anticipation was wrong as Zverev consistently sent him the wrong way on short ball situations, with Zverev controlling the forecourt. It’s easy to put it down to a loss of form after playing so few matches throughout the year, but I suspect that’s only part of the problem. It is no surprise now that as a champion ages, it becomes harder for him to “get up” for matches, the way he used to when he was younger. The nerve networks don’t fire up that quickly anymore and the legs don’t kick into gear as early in the match as they used to. Even the emotional energy levels begin to fluctuate such that in one moment you see an aging champion and in the next, they’ve turned back the clock for one more point, one more game or one more set… never the entire match.
As I watched Federer play, I got a feeling of this fluctuating energy level. In the first set, his serving lacked its traditional pop and his ground strokes felt more guided than actually hit. In the second set the competitor in him, alive to the real danger of losing, woke up and we began to see the movement, the dismissive follow through off both wings and the athleticism we all associate with a man widely accepted to be the greatest of all time. He won that set and yet, as has become a familiar sight, Federer couldn’t sustain it in the third. Down the stretch, he faltered. The difference was, this only used to happen with the likes of Djokovic. Now it appears Federer has become increasingly vulnerable to other players like Zverev. It reinforces the notion that father time is slowly reeling him in. We can all speculate about whether or not he’ll win one more slam. Since it’s Federer, it would be best not to count him out until he’s called it a day.
As for Zverev, he notches up the biggest win of his career and his star continues to shine just that little bit brighter. He said he’s still trying to process this. He’ll have to do so quickly. There’s a tournament to be won tomorrow. Federer himself knows all too well that while a big upset does wonders for a young upstart’s confidence, nothing caps it better than following up with the tournament win.
As Federer’s star inevitably falls, it appears the younger generations’ rises. It is only natural. Though it isn’t goodbye just yet, if the future is anything to go by, the game will be in good hands.