Perhaps more than any other matchup in tennis today, Roger Federer vs Alexander Zverev is the most generationally significant one. Where Roger vs Rafa is the ultimate yin and yang relationship, a clash of polar opposites, there are more than a few shades of gray when it comes to the Swiss who speaks Swiss German and the… well.. the German. Where Federer and Nadal represent classical physics in all its rationality and simplicity, Federer and Zverev are a bit like quantum physics. Everything breaks down when these two men clash and just about anything is equally possible with these two.
Roger Federer is the classical tennis player, who has successfully adapted his game to an increasingly modern era jampacked with string technology, raw power and undiluted physicality and athleticism. Federer makes you feel like the future is here while evoking an overpowering sense of nostalgia. He makes you look ahead while never losing sight of history. If you think this is impossible, I understand. Federer has a habit of achieving the impossible with routine abandon.
Alexander Zverev is in many ways, Federer’s future. The embodiment of everything power, the energy he brings to the game is very difficult to ignore. From the confidence that oozes off his twenty-year-old presence to the thunderous pop that follows every swing of his racket, Alexander Zverev intimidates with his natural power. Yet power isn’t the most accurate way to describe what this young man does on a tennis court. If it was, he would perhaps be in the mold of Robin Soderling. The Swede had power. Zverev has much more. He is a gifted shot-maker, who moves fluidly for a man of his size, displays a natural affinity for the touch game and is not afraid to step outside of his comfort zone in pursuit of the ultimate result in tennis – the win. You can see Federer’s influence on the next generation and the indelible mark is clear in Zverev’s game.
None of these guys are one-dimensional players. They are actualizations of a future the Swiss ushered in, in 2003. Zverev is no different but he, like Federer also makes you think of the past. It isn’t hard to remember another Swede when you see Zverev scamper across the court – long blonde locks flying in the wind generated by displaced air – and scoop a two-handed backhand crosscourt or redirect it down the line. If Federer reminds us of Sampras and perhaps Edberg, Zverev reminds us a bit of Federer and a lot of Bjorn Borg. Federer once said he would love to play Borg if he could go back in time. Alexander Zverev might be the closest he will get to that wish, and he has proven to be a worthy challenge.
Coming into this match, Federer and Zverev were tied with two wins apiece in their head to head. Zverev knew the opportunity he had in this match. A win was a 50% possibility. Federer knew the danger was equally as potent. What we got was a brilliant display of tennis covering the opposites and gray areas these men represent, just as smoothly as both men covered the court. This match sat on the slicing edge of a katana for the better part of two sets, with both players probing each other in search of that extra point that could help open the gap neither to sprint away towards the finish line. That Federer won, in the end, was not because he found a singular answer to the Zverev challenge. Rather, Federer found a system of answers, gradually shifting from one to the next as each one was neutralized by the German.
However, one answer proved to be too much for the German to solve throughout the match. It ultimately was the cancer that spread and rendered Zverev’s game useless in the third set. Federer’s low slice to Zverev’s forehand caused the young star all sorts of problems. Forehand after forehand found the middle of the net or were propped up for Federer to pounce on from either wing. It was the ultimate neutralizer to Zverev’s awesome power and it began to sow a seed of doubt that hampered the effectiveness of the rest of his game. That Zverev hung tough for two sets (he very nearly won in two) is a testament to the champion lurking inside him.
Still, Federer had one too many answers for Zverev yesterday. That won’t always be the case. Zverev is only twenty and if all stays as it should, will continue to get better with every week that passes. Federer saw the future and by his own admission, defended against it successfully. He might come face to face with it again soon. It could be in this tournament. For now, that is a future we’ll just have to wait for.