November 18, 2018
Alexander Zverev made beating Novak Djokovic look easy. And it wasn’t just the 6-4, 6-3 scoreline. This was emphatic.
You had to remember that almost no one had been able to beat Novak in the last six months. Not even Zverev himself, earlier in the week.
But “Sascha” Zverev has now turned into something very special. As a player and a personality. He is even a stand-up comedian, as he demonstrated in his victory speech.
A new superstar in tennis has arrived. A superstar beyond tennis too. For this young man will surely transcend the sport. Previously perceived as cold. Now known to be witty and warm.
For now, a first big title. No Grand Slams yet. But on this form they will surely come.
He hit the ball so sweetly that there were times it looked as though he simply couldn’t miss.
And that last shot. The match-winning backhand under pressure curled round those usually-impeccable Djokovic sensors and landed inside the lines.
The new, year-end champion fell to the floor and rolled around in disbelief. A sporting Djokovic joined him to embrace the winner.
Earlier in the week, Novak had sounded so critical of Zverev’s game that you wondered whether he liked the younger man at all.
He had claimed Sascha couldn’t volley. Yet Zverev executed most of his volleys perfectly in the final.
Djokovic had also pointed to Zverev’s mental weakness once behind. But in the showpiece it was Novak who couldn’t seem to find the inner warrior once he had fallen a set behind.
Sure, Novak was suffering from the after-effects of a virus and struggled with his breathing at times.
But those symptoms always feel worse when your opponent is playing out of his skin.
Zverev broke the normally-awesome Djokovic serve four times as the Serb’s strength melted away amid 23 unforced errors.
Everything seemed forced and tight from the world number one. His forehand fell apart. He didn’t even seem to want a third set.
When Zverev started to see the finishing line and tightened too, Novak wasn’t able to respond. Normally he would go for the jugular and seize back control.
Instead, Djokovic simply conceded defeat generously. ‘Congratulations Sascha. You definitely played better than in the group stage and you deserved to win.
‘You are still quite young but you have had an amazing career so far and I wish you all the best for the future.
‘Speaking of being young, hopefully I’ll play many more years and see you guys back here in the future.
‘Obviously today wasn’t great for me and my team but putting things in perspective it was an amazing comeback and so a great year.’
No arguments there. But everyone wanted to hear how the young champ was feeling.
‘Right now I really can’t describe it. Unbelievable. This is the biggest title that I’ve ever won.’
Turning to Novak, he added: ‘We have talked about so many things together, not just tennis but life. I’m not going to mention all of them.’
There was much laughter between them about private jokes and secrets shared. Then Sascha began to thank his team.
‘First of all my dad. He might be the best coach in tennis. He is not going to stop crying until next year probably, but that’s fine.’
The crowd roared with laughter.
‘He also doesn’t understand half the stuff I say right now, but that’s OK as well,’ added Sascha to more laughs.
‘Everbody is just happy right now. Ivan (Lendl), thanks for joining the team. I think it’s working out OK – for now. Hopefully it’s going to continue.’
The crowd laughed more when they heard this delicious understatement. Then Zverev turned to Andy Murray’s old conditioner, Jez Green.
‘Jez and I have been working together for the last five years.
‘I know you can’t see it but I did actually put on some muscle in the last few years. I was even skinnier.
‘Some of you probably think that isn’t possible but yes it is.’
Still in full flow and with the crowd loving it, Zverev was cut off and given a bottle of champagne. He looked bemused.
‘I wasn’t done yet but thanks for the champagne. I wasn’t going to get drunk just yet but OK it’ s nice.’
And we all knew what he wanted to say after being booed by the crowd the previous day.
He wanted to cement a new rapport with the world’s tennis fans. And boy, did he succeed.
‘I want to thank the crowd. You know we had a bit of a moment yesterday. But I appreciate every one of you for coming out. You show your love for the sport and it makes it easier to play.’
Not the previous day, perhaps, when the booing seemed intolerable, the young man’s punishment for knocking out Federer. But how things can change in 24 hours.
We had thought that tennis might never be as vibrant or breathtaking once Federer and Nadal retire.
Then Alexander Zverev reveals his star quality like this.
To go with what Stefanos Tsitsipas and other youngsters have also shown in 2018.
Suddenly we know tennis is going to be OK. More than OK. Scintillating.
Who can wait for 2019? The real battle for tennis domination will take place next year. Big Three versus Next Generation. Old guard versus New Kids.
And that’s before we even start to talk about Andy Murray’s much-anticipated comeback.
It’s going to be some year.
By Mark Ryan for WDH.