Learning the hard way

Zverev_Dzumhur_FrenchOpen_2018

Damir Dzumhur is currently ranked the 29th best player in the world and at 26 years, is already a seasoned veteran on tour.  He has a career win-loss record of 87-81 and 2 titles to his name.  Yesterday he went up against Alexander Zverev.  He is currently ranked the 3rd best player in the world, and at 21 years, is already touted as one of the game’s brightest stars – a future champion.  He has a career win-loss record of 147-78 and 8 titles (three of them are Masters 1000 shields) to his name.  On paper, this was supposed to be a straightforward victory.  Maybe throw in a tough set just to respect Dzumhur’s top 30 ranking.

The first set went as would be expected.  Zverev came out of the gates looking sharp – looking a lot like his ranking.  He took the ball early on both wings and hit his shots deep into the court, forcing Dzumhur into rallying with nothing more than half volleys from the back of the court.  When an opportunity to pummel the ball for a winner, or at least put Dzumhur under pressure, presented itself, Zverev struck with conviction.  The young man had a clear vision of what he needed to do to win this match.  He bagged the first set comfortably, 6 -2.  Then, he walked to his chair, took out the paper plan of the match, and ripped it to shreds… figuratively speaking.

Anyone who has watched Zverev’s career unfold, is probably aware of a worrisome pattern with the young star.  Over the last year, he’s played sublime tennis leading up to a grand slam.  He usually bags a Masters tournament or at least makes the final, in the build up and when the slam begins, he is ambushed right in his path to the second week.  The most recent of these roadside waylays, came in Melbourne, earlier this year.  Zverev had played a fantastic Hopman cup with Angelique Kerber.  They got to the finals, losing to Federer and Bencic.  It was such a great prep tournament, that Kerber continued on her run of form all the way to the semifinals of the Australian Open, playing one of the best matches of the year against Simona Halep.  Zverev didn’t have such luck.  He was taken out by Hyeong Chung in the third round.  While it was a five-setter, the last set was a dud.  Zverev was shamefully served a bagel and unceremoniously ushered out of a tournament many had touted him to win.  After that loss, even Sasha, admitted he needed to do some soul searching to understand and stop the worrisome pattern.

This pattern is not lost on Zverev’s fellow players.  Zverev starts off flying out of the gates, all guns blazing… as they should.  Then, all of a sudden, he appears to go through a sad case of identity crisis.  Zverev, instead of embracing his big man’s game, starts playing little man tennis.  His flat penetrating shots, become tame topspin rolls that dovetail harmlessly into the hitting zone of any opportunistic opponent.  His sharply angled shots vanish all together and he starts playing safe.  Sometimes, a little too safe.  Finally, he gets into this unnecessary cat and mouse game with opponents who are well versed in the arts of touch and have a mastery of the dink shots catalog.  It is almost always a fatal combination.  A straightforward match, becomes a battle and Zverev’s otherwise beaten opponent, becomes increasingly full of confidence.

Damir Dzumhur knew his moment would come.  The Zverev lull was bound to happen and it did in the second set.  When it did, he pounced.  Dzumhur didn’t necessarily go on the attack, as much as he reeled Zverev deeper into the black hole of cat and mouse games he had willfully stepped into.  The top Bosnian player was suddenly full of life.  He sprung like a hare from side to side, tracking down the best of Zverev’s drives, volleys, and drop shots.  Here we were again, witnessing a future champion being humbled by an opponent who may never be regarded as a champion.  Therein was the lesson for Zverev.  Was he a champion yet?  Surely we couldn’t overlook three masters shields.  However, we cannot overlook a flurry of grand slams played without making the second week.  Zverev lost the next two sets in similar fashion.  He thrashed away at his strokes with desperate abandon to save his destiny, and lost.

At the end of the third set, Dzumhur walked to his chair with a two sets to one lead.  Zverev walked to his chair and wrote down a new script on paper… figuratively.  By the start of the fourth set, we saw exactly what that plan was.  The brilliant ball striker was back.  Dzumhur felt it too, but I imagine he also believed he had built up enough momentum to dig out the win.  He very nearly did.  However, he was facing a different Alexander Zverev.  Gone was the young man who felt a win was his entitlement simply because he had potential.  Here was the young man who instead believed the win was there for the taking and was willing to use his natural ball striking talent to get it.  Once it was determined in Zverev’s mind, that this was going to be a fight where the better tennis player won, the tables had turned.  Zverev is a better tennis player than Dzumhur is.  And so it was that Zverev would begin flashing winners with a backhand that could be talked about as a stroke of legend, one day.  He went back to besting Dzumhur with offense and his pace of shot.  He went back to serving smartly and using his pretty darn good movement to track down the shots he needed to and not those he wanted to.  He saved match points along the way and finally, with a Dzumhur error, Zverev had his win.

Zverev has now survived his last two matches, in five sets.  We can always wonder about whether or not they needed to go five sets each time.  We can always wonder about how much he has left in his tank, even as he survived each match.  The most important thing we need to know is, for the first time, Zverev is displaying an age old champion’s trait.  He is surviving.  He remembers, just in time, that no one will walk on the court with him and just roll over.  At least not yet.  He’ll have to earn that champion’s aura and to do it, he’ll have to become a champion.  How?  By earning seven wins over two weeks.

It’s a tough way to learn, but at least he is learning.

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