Alexander Zverev, all of 20, leads the pack of future ATP Tour stars known and heavily marketed as the “Next-Gen”.
But the way he’s playing this season, he’s hardly “next”.
The German impressively took care of a sub-par Roger Federer in the Rogers Cup final Sunday. It was an emphatic 6-3, 6-4 victory that may well have been his, even if his 36-year-old opponent had been at 100 per cent.
Since saving match points against Richard Gasquet in his first match in Montreal (one involved a 49-shot rally), Zverev was the form player of the tournament. He punctuated that form Saturday night when he straight-setted 18-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov.
Shapovalov had been enjoying a life- and career-changing week. He upset Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal back-to-back on his way to the semis. In that sense, the younger player definitely lent a helping hand to his fellow Next-Gener by eliminating two major challenges for him.
But that’s tennis.
“(Saturday) I played someone who is two years younger. I haven’t done that in my career so far. That was something new for me. Obviously I had nerves today, which I had better under control than yesterday. I thought yesterday was a very tight match. Could have gone both ways. I felt like I didn’t play as well as I did today. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of shots under control,” Zverev said. “When I’m playing really well, when I’m feeling the ball really well, I feel like those nerves go away because I just know what I’m doing. Yesterday obviously I played well, but nowhere near as what I did today.”
There were references to another young German prodigy with the milestones Zverev reached Sunday. He became the first German player to win the Rogers Cup since 1986. Boris Becker was 18, a month removed from his second straight Wimbledon title, when he defeated longtime rival Stefan Edberg in the final in Toronto.
Zverev also is the first German player to win five titles in a season on the ATP Tour since Becker did it in 1996.
He is the youngest player to win the Rogers Cup since a 20-year-old Novak Djokovic (with his May birthday, he was a month younger than Zverev is today) won in Montreal.
Djokovic pulled off the rare trifecta; he defeated No. 3 Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals. And then he defeated No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the semis. In the final, he beat No. 1 Federer in a third-set tiebreak, on a windy day much like Sunday.
Zverev did observe, as some did, that Federer’s physical form went way off early in the second set. The velocity on his serve dropped. And even his serve motion changed. By the end, he wasn’t crouching down in his typical serve return position, but almost standing straight up.
(Federer addressed that in his press conference. He’s going to take a few days before deciding whether to play Cincinnati next week).
“Obviously I noticed it. At the score of 2-2, I think his first serve got a little bit slower. You got to ask him what happened there. I don’t know. But yeah, I mean, I definitely noticed it,” Zverev said.
New career high
Zverev will leapfrog over fellow youngster Dominic Thiem into a career-high ranking of No. 7 on Monday.
Between his title in Washington, D.C. a week ago and the Masters 1000 title Sunday, he has put 1,500 points on the board in the race for the ATP Tour finals in London.
As a first-round loser a year ago in Toronto, his net haul is significant.
And in the short-term, he can make even more gains in Cincinnati and then at the US Open. Zverev lost to No. 102 Yuichi Sugita in the first round in Cincinnati a year ago. And then he lost in the second round of the US Open to the currently suspended Dan Evans.
Zverev is in a quarter of the Cincinnati draw with the ailing Milos Raonic, who lost his first match in Montreal. And he’s in the same half with Federer, who may not even play.
“Alexander has been around for a while now. Not a whole long time. But at this level, I’ve gotten to play him already now for the fourth or fifth time, practiced a ton with him. We know each other well. I’m just really happy for him, to see that he’s taking everything not just to the next level, but the two next levels, winning two Masters 1000s,” Federer said. “It’s extremely difficult to win. He’s won two this year. It’s a wonderful achievement for him.
“I wish him the best for the coming months and hope he can finish the season very strong, because there’s opportunities now.”
Federer had Zverev pegged pretty early as one to watch. The notion of longevity and the challenge of playing the kids is important to him. He remembers appreciating the fact that Andre Agassi stayed around long enough so that Federer could face him on multiple occasions.
Also: they make great and (theoretically) tireless practice chum. So he often invites the up-and-comers to train with him at his base in Dubai.
Nearly 2 1/2 years ago, when Zverev was still just 17, Federer had him out practicing at Indian Wells.
He did it again this year. Same court.
Two year-end finals?
Zverev already has clinched his appearance in the inaugural Next-Gen finals. He is eons ahead of everyone else although Shapovalov, with his effort this week, zoomed up from No. 11 to No. 3 in the race .
As for the regular Tour finals in London, Zverev now is behind only Nadal and Federer, who have already clinched their spots in the final eight.
He said after winning the Masters 1000 in Rome last May that there was no reason for him to choose which final event to play, should it come to that. He could certainly play both.
And the Next-Gen Finals in Milan are an event practically built around the 20-year-old, as the best-known and most-marketable of the new generation of players. So to skip it would not be without its consequences.
But Zverev will have played a lot of tennis by November.
If he began the 2017 season as a lock to be the best amongst the next, he may well end it being amongst the best – period.