November 17, 2018
This could be the making of Alexander ‘Sascha’ Zverev.
As a tennis player. As a superstar. The way he beat Roger Federer. The way he reacted to the hatred.
Close to tears, yet still apologising for what had happened. Saying sorry for something that wasn’t his fault.
Jeered and booed by thousands for stopping mid-point during the decisive tie-break.
A ball-kid dropped a ball and distracted him. Zverev reacted appropriately.
But you would have thought Zverev had just shot Federer dead on the spot, for all the understanding he was shown.
Roger questioned the ball-boy. Briefly. Politely. Maybe it wasn’t his place to do so. Maybe Roger’s initial annoyance at the interruption didn’t help.
But Federer is a winner. He had just been in a rally that could have earned him a mini-break at 5-3. He too is human.
Yes, even the great Roger Federer isn’t perfect.
Some thought the incident robbed Federer of victory. In truth, Zverev was highly likely to have won anyway.
The 21-year-old had already fired the ball back over the net when he called a halt to a rally on his second serve at 3-4 down.
Unfortunately, perhaps, the rule says replay the point from the start. That gave Zverev the chance to ace Federer – which he duly did.
He also won the breaker and the match, 7-5, 7-6 (5).
Waves of hostility from a significant section of the 17,000 crowd during the post-match interview.
The 02 is not Wimbledon. It is a great venue but it does not have quite the same classy history as Wimbledon. Nowhere does.
Behaviour at the 02 can be raucous and unforgiving at times. Sporting magnanimity was sacrificed on this occasion.
People wanted to see the great Federer reach the final. They wanted to see Federer v Djokovic on Sunday.
They were angry that it didn’t happen; didn’t like the rules; didn’t like Zverev for using them.
That much was understandable. But to blame the winner for playing by the book?
The main reason Federer didn’t make it to the final was fatigue. Too many backhands and even some forehands didn’t clear the net.
Also, Zverev was magnificent. Supremely athletic and powerful. His serve was too strong.
As for Federer, the footwork wasn’t quite there. Still, Roger being Roger, he fought back and finally went for some more aggressive winners.
He even broke Zverev early in the second set that way – only to be broken immediately himself.
Federer was hanging in there. But would he have won the third set if he had scraped the breaker? Doubtful, with so little left in the tank.
Only a Zverev implosion would have made it possible. Yet there was no sign of weakness from the German. Not until the match was over, anyway.
And even that weakness was likeable, human, endearing. The way he reacted to the haters at the 02 was moving. It was also pure class.
It’s a shame that a superb tennis match will be remembered for this strange twist of fate, with Federer 4-3 ahead in the tie-break.
Unfortunate, also, that Annabel Croft’s opening question to Zverev in the on-court interview almost invited a backlash.
‘How did you get the win?’
Cue the unleashing of much fury and booing
Zverev looked shaken, close to tears. He thought on his feet – as he did all afternoon.
‘First I want to apologise for the situation in the tie break. The ball boy dropped the ball so it’s in the rules that we have to replay the point.
‘I apologised to Roger at the net already and he told me that’s OK. It’s obviously in the rules like that.’
(Actually all Roger said at the net was “It’s good. ” But that amounted to the same thing.)
Croft tried to defend the interviewee. ‘I’m not sure why you’re all booing, those are the rules so I think you have to be a little bit more respectful.’
Zverev wore the expression of a man about to be lynched. ‘I want to apologise to the crowd as well. There’ s a lot of Roger fans here, as he deserves.
‘From what he achieved and the kind of guy he is, it is what he deserves. He should have the most fans in the world. Especially in London with the history he has here.
‘The crowd has been amazing, the crowd has been fair all match. Again, I’m very sorry that this happened. I didn’t mean to upset anybody. That’s all I can say. Sorry.
‘I’m a little bit upset now about the situation. How it all ended. This is not how I wanted it to end. But I hope I’ll have more great matches here, and maybe…you know maybe…’
You could tell what he wanted to say. ‘Maybe you’ll like me next time; you’ ll forgive me some time in the future. Maybe we can get along; you’ll love me one day.’
But he couldn’t.
‘I don’t know what to say, I’m a little bit lost right now.’
That was all he could come out with. A winner. Feeling lost. A bit like Naomi Osaka after the US Open final and that outburst from Serena Williams.
This time it wasn’t so much the opponent going too far, as the crowd. Their love for their hero had caused deep hostility towards a rising star.
Sue Barker, an ex-tennis star herself and a legendary British TV presenter, said: ‘I’m actually quite embarrassed that a British crowd should put him through that and make him feel so awful about it.’
But the Wimbledon crowd might just redress the balance. In fact large sections of the 02 crowd made a point of applauding Zverev – particularly after he had spoken.
A sense of British fair play does have a habit of prevailing in the end. Compassion is also a powerful thing.
Remember when Andy Murray cried on Centre Court and people warmed to him?
Zverev didn’t cry but he nearly did. There will be sympathy in the aftermath. Never again can Sascha be seen as a cold character.
Now he is infinitely human. Still a tiny bit vulnerable due to his age. And a wonderful tennis player.
Sure, he has shown a lack of fight on big occasions at times. So did Novak Djokovic once or twice when he was young.
Beating Roger Federer at the 02 was a massive progression in terms of Zverev’s mental strength. So was the way he dealt with the reaction.
Some will still hate him for winning this contest. They will still be hating him when Wimbledon 2019 arrives.
Others will remember how he handled himself. With class and dignity and warmth. After playing a fantastic tennis match.
Those are the ingredients for a future Wimbledon hero. Zverev just came of age.