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Steve Flink: As Injuries Continue to Ail ATP Stars, Federer and Zverev Look Forward

As the 2018 ATP season begins to unfold, the issue of injuries in the game’s upper regions remains a serious concern. Rafael Nadal, still troubled by ailing knees, pulled out of this week's tournament in Brisbane. Novak Djokovic's elbow remains problematic, and the Serbian was forced to withdraw from Doha. Andy Murray's hip may well prevent him from playing the game on his terms for some time. It is worrisome to see players of that stature still physically compromised as another year commences, not to mention the likes of Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori dealing with their disconcerting ailments.

Which is why devoted fans are gratified to watch two of the top four players in the world—No. 2 Roger Federer and No. 4 Alexander Zverev—competing at the moment in the Hopman Cup. The annual exhibition event, held in Perth, Australia, provides an ideal competitive environment for the Swiss and the German, who are both looking to hone their games, get some much-needed match play and build their confidence in preparation for the upcoming Australian Open. Coming off career-altering seasons, both men seem highly motivated to make 2018 another banner year—and the feeling grows among the cognoscenti that they will make their presence known piercingly over the course of the year ahead.

Let's start with the 36-year-old Federer. In my view, he is almost an overwhelming favorite to capture the first major of the year, and thus put himself in a place where he can soar to the same heights he reached in 2017, when he won two of the three Grand Slam tournaments he played, as well as five other titles on the ATP World Tour.

The Australian Open could well be the tournament that defines Federer's 2018 campaign. Aside from a shocking third-round defeat at the hands of the industrious yet unspectacular Andreas Seppi in 2015, Federer has been a semifinalist or better in Melbourne every year since 2004. He is a five-time champion, with Rod Laver Arena’s quick hard court suiting him to the hilt. If the surface is playing as fast as it did last year, Federer will loom even larger as the man to beat.

“I had the best time of my life there in 2017,” Federer said late last year. “I can't wait to play there again.”

Whether or not Federer wins a sixth title in Melbourne, where can he go from there? His decision to skip the entire clay-court circuit in 2017 was sound and beneficial—probably the key to his eighth tournament triumph at Wimbledon. The guess here is that he will bypass the dirt entirely again this season, and thus head into Wimbledon revitalized and ready to defend.

Federer will be the prohibitive favorite at the All England Club. The surface’s low bounces and inherently quicker points, combined with his late-career desire to end more points at the net and drive through his backhand, make the Swiss a magnificent grass-court player, unassailably better than anyone else.

But, above all, it will be the lethal combination of his serve and forehand that will propel Federer through 2018. There are bigger servers out there, but Federer's delivery is the most precise in the game. No one serves better on the big points, and his capacity to back up his serve with lethal forehands from mid-court is unsurpassed.

The second half of Federer's 2018 is harder to project. He has not won the US Open in 10 years. By that time of the year, competing regularly on hard courts could well make him vulnerable to back injury, something he's not far removed from. Mental fatigue can also set in. He will always be a strong contender in New York, and throughout the hard-court summer. But like last season, that part of the year could become tricky for Federer. Nevertheless, Federer will, as always, be a serious force indoors down the stretch.

In my view, even if Federer plays only 12 tournaments (as he did last season), he may well finish 2018 at No. 1. By pacing himself, striking gold at propitious moments and coming through to take two more majors, this year is projecting similarly to his memorable 2017.

What is in store for Mr. Zverev? This will be a crucial stretch for the young and sometimes impetuous German.

Let's start with the positives. In 2017, Zverev demonstrated that he has an extraordinary range of talent and remarkable versatility—he won his first two Masters 1000 titles on clay and then hard courts. To do so, Zverev toppled Novak Djokovic in the final of Rome, then upended Federer in the title bout in Montreal.

Zverev's determination is almost tangible, and his commitment to fulfilling his potential and claiming prestigious prizes is indisputable.

“What I like about Zverev is he's got the full package,” said Federer last year. “I think the last six months of the 2017 season gave him everything he needs to look forward to and work for. He will only get stronger. That should be very encouraging for him and his team.”

Zverev does not turn 21 until April. In some ways, he is an exceedingly mature young man with an acute sense of who he is and what he can accomplish. Conversely, he can behave rashly and get in his own way when matches are drifting away, or when opportunities have not been seized. Understandably, he expects an awful lot from himself, but there are times when he can turn into his own worst enemy. The size of his competitive appetite can be both an asset and a liability.

The fact remains that Zverev is arguably more enterprising that any young player, and his range of weapons and options is considerable. His two-handed backhand is right up there among the best in the game. He changes direction uncannily with it, keeping opponents off guard by going up the line, getting great depth on his crosscourt backhand, and standing toe to toe with anyone in the world off his preferred side.

How will Zverev fare in 2018? Much will depend on his propensity to raise his level at Grand Slam tournaments. Zverev has played 10 majors during his brief career, but has yet to progress beyond the fourth round. Many believed he might be ready to reach the latter stages of the US Open last September—and perhaps even win it—but he fell disappointingly to Borna Coric in the second round.

"I thought when I was younger that by the age of 20 I'd probably have won about four Slams already," Zverev said last year. "Then when I was 16, everything started being more realistic. I could not imagine Top 10 by the age of 20. It's something truly amazing. Getting to the TOp 10 is one thing, but staying there is going to be very, very difficult."

The view here is that Zverev will make amends in 2018 and break through at a major. He will be a dangerous threat at the Australian Open, certainly a contender for the final weekend in Melbourne. Much will depend on his draw.

Zverev is an underrated clay-court player and should also do well at Roland Garros. But Zverev's biggest openings should come during the second half of the season. He is comfortable on the grass, and a deep run at Wimbledon is possible, but his best surface is probably hard courts. By the end of summer, assuming his match playing acumen improves, and as long as his work ethic is undiminished, Zverev will be a powerful presence. He will be a prime contender at the U.S. Open. And there is no reason why he should close the 2018 season indoors in the desultory fashion he finished 2017.

Be that as it may, the competition is more familiar with Zverev now than they were a year ago. They will recognize his patterns, and figure out what is required to beat him. The pressure will mount. Zverev will need to live up to his hard-earned reputation, no easy task.

Meanwhile, Zverev must shore up his forehand. It is an explosive shot, and on his free-flowing days he can be dazzling off that side. But to make inroads in 2018, he can't afford so many unprovoked mistakes off that wing, particularly in appointments against his foremost rivals.

In his opening singles match in Hopman Cup on New Year's Day, Zverev looked dispirited in some ways as the ever-resourceful and steadily ascending David Goffin picked him apart, 6-3, 6-3. The professional and wily Belgian gave Zverev a lesson in court management, point construction and tactical acuity. Zverev fought with quiet ferocity, rifled winners off both flanks and served prodigiously at various stages. But he found absolutely no holes in Goffin's arsenal. He confronted an opponent who was decidedly better on the day.

The loss did not matter much. The beauty of Hopman Cup is that you play for your country, try hard and treat the event seriously. But there are no negative consequences, because the eight-team event does not count in the record books. Hopman Cup is there for the benefit of the fans and the enrichment of the players. It is set up as a tune-up for the Australian Open, a chance to get ready for a major without unnecessary stress.

After the off-season, there could be no better way to ease into a new campaign. Zverev will play a few more matches for Germany in an idyllic setting, as will Federer for Switzerland. Both men should be ready to hurl themselves into the coming season afterward.

This much seems certain for 2018: Federer will maintain his mastery as the sport's central and most arresting player—and Zverev will put everything he has into establishing himself, unequivocally, as a player who belongs among the game's elite.

Read more articles by Steve Flink

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