It is difficult not to admire Alexander "Sascha" Zverev. The 20-year-old German acts, thinks, and plays like a champion. Zverev reminds me of Nick Kyrgios in some ways because he believes unequivocally that he belongs among the elite of tennis. He relishes every chance he can get to go into combat against the leading players. He has an appealing swagger on the court, a healthy ego, a sense of self that seldom wavers. He realizes that he is just beginning to tap into his potential. Moreover, Zverev is well aware that he has virtually all of the tools and the right mentality to someday become the best player in the world. Zverev is a player who commands respect not just for who he is but for where he is going and what he will inevitably become.
Yesterday in Rome, he appeared in his first Masters 1000 final at the Internazionali BNL D'Italia, better known as the Italian Open. Zverev was decidedly the underdog as he faced four time champion Novak Djokovic in the title round contest on the red clay. They had never met before in head to head competition. Djokovic seemed at last to have recaptured his old zest, court presence, swagger and stability. Most pundits figured the tournament was the Serbian's for the taking. He came onto the court with a 30-12 record in Masters 1000 finals. He seemed to be surging, to be finding his peak form with the French Open just around the corner, to be back in his groove again.
But what many thought would be a coronation for the world No. 2 was precisely the opposite. Zverev was immensely poised on a stage he had never stood on before, performing like a man much older and wiser. Djokovic, meanwhile, was abysmal, a mere shadow of the fellow who had crushed Dominic Thiem so comprehensively in the penultimate round. The world No. 2 began the encounter with inexplicable apprehension and wounded himself irreparably with a dismal start in the confrontation. This was an unwelcome reappearance of the Djokovic who has fought in vain since winning the French Open a year ago to find the consistency and dependability that was for so long the hallmark of his game. He was nowhere near the essential Djokovic, slipping into his self defeatist mode, bewildering himself and his followers with a passive performance.
The evidence of Djokovic's frailty was there from the very first point of the match as he double faulted. He followed with an unprovoked miss-hit error off the backhand, and then erred unjustifiably on a forehand down the line long. Djokovic took the next point but was broken at 15 as Zverev climbed all over a second serve crosscourt return off the forehand, drawing an error from Djokovic on the run. Djokovic missed all five first serves in that game and did not back up his second delivery adeptly at all.
Buoyed by that service break right off the bat, Zverev served rhythmically and purposefully to hold at 15 for 2-0, connecting with four out of five first serves, closing that game with an ace out wide in the deuce court. Djokovic managed to hold on at 15 in the third game but he was making no impression on Zverev's delivery, a fact the Serbian knew full well. The 6'6" German was rushing Djokovic right out of the rallies. He was driving through the ball forcefully and refusing to allow the Serbian to set up shop on the baseline and take control of longer and more tactical points. Zverev held at 15 for 3-1. The last point of that game symbolized what was happening in the match. Djokovic's second serve return was too short. Zverev moved into the court and drilled a two-hander crosscourt that was relatively flat, and an outstretched Djokovic netted his backhand.
Djokovic elicited a couple of forehand errors from Zverev in the fifth game before drawing Zverev in with a drop shot. He won that point with a backhand volley winner and held at love with an excellent second serve down the T drawing a return error. That love hold from the No. 2 seed closed the gap to 3-2 in favor of his opponent, and then Djokovic created a small opening in the sixth game, reaching 15-30 as Zverev made a pair of unforced errors. Here Zverev remain unruffled. He had been driving the backhand with such depth and pace that Djokovic was getting trapped far behind the baseline with alarming frequency. So the German caught his adversary completely off guard with a backhand drop shot down the line winner. A well placed wide serve in the deuce court was too much for Djokovic: 40-30. And then Zverev advanced to 4-2 with an excellent wide serve setting up a forehand winner into the open court.
Remarkably, that would be the closest Djokovic would get to a service break all match long. The Serbian never even reached deuce on the German's serve. In my memory, that has never happened to Djokovic since he moved into the forefront of the game in 2007. To be sure, Zverev served beautifully with extraordinary deception and a good variety of locations, but the fact remains that Djokovic had a horrendous afternoon on the return of serve. His customarily swift reactions were flagrantly missing. He did not keep enough returns in play and those that did land in the court were much too short. Zverev is a first rate server but he is no Nick Kyrgios. Djokovic failed to break the Australian in their showdowns in Acapulco and Indian Wells on hard courts but that was understandable the way Kyrgios was finding the corners with his devastatingly potent first serve serve and his audacious second serve on faster courts. To never threaten Zverev across two sets on clay was hard to comprehend and impossible to justify.
In any case, Djokovic was clearly uneasy about his inability to read the Zverev serve. Meanwhile, Zverev was stationed far behind the baseline for his returns and Djokovic was not exposing the German for that court positioning with regularity. Serving at 2-4, 40-30, Djokovic missed wildly on a backhand down the line. He did move to a second game point and then got away with a badly executed backhand crosscourt drop shot as Zverev bungled his reply and Djokovic held. Zverev opened the eighth game with a double fault but he swept the next four points for a 5-3 lead, serving an ace on the penultimate point. Djokovic held on at the cost of only one point for 4-5 but no nerves surfaced when Zverev served for the set in the tenth game. A penetrating backhand crosscourt took him to 15-0. He aced Djokovic down the T for 30-0, aced him out wide for 40-0 and eventually held at 15 to seal the set 6-4.
Djokovic looked to regroup in the second set but his demeanor was largely negative and there was no sign of life from the Serbian despite a hold at 30 for 1-0. Zverev held at 15 for 1-1 and then went to work, striving for a service break in the third game. Djokovic steered a forehand long for 0-15, netted a forehand slice from well behind the baseline, but then rallied to 30-30. Now Zverev walloped a spectacular backhand winner down the line to set up a break point. Djokovic gave that one away with a feebly netted forehand down the line, hit with absolutely no conviction.
Zverev knew that he not only had the upper hand but realized also that Djokovic had no spark, resolve or inner conviction. The Serbian simply could not bring out any positive emotions; he was plainly trying but unmistakably conveyed that he thought he had little chance of swinging the match back in his direction. Zverev held at 15 with an ace out wide. Djokovic's discouragement was increasingly apparent. Serving at 1-3, 40-30, he sent a backhand crosscourt wide despite being under no pressure. He remedied the situation briefly with an unstoppable backhand down the line and a first serve that set up a forehand down the line which forced Zverev into a backhand error.
The German remained entirely comfortable on serve, holding at 15 for 4-2 with another ace out wide. Djokovic fought on half-heartedly. Serving in the seventh game, he double faulted and netted a routine backhand for 0-30. The Serbian would hold serve after two deuces, but that stand was unconvincing. Zverev was utterly in command. He held at love for 5-3 as Djokovic tamely guided a forehand down the line long on the first point. Zverev proceeded to release a scorching forehand winner, an unanswerable first serve and another forehand winner.
Djokovic served to stay in the match and reached 40-30, only to miss a forehand down the line by a wide margin. He got to game point for the second time but gave himself a self inflicted wound with another mistake off the forehand. The Serbian double faulted into the net, falling behind match point. Zverev marched across the finish line as Djokovic drove a backhand down the middle that landed far beyond the baseline. The German had succeeded 6-4, 6-3, breaking Djokovic thrice across two sets. More impressively, he won 27 of 32 first serve points (84%) and 9 of 13 on his second delivery (69%). Those numbers are almost unimaginable against Djokovic on any surface, but particularly on a clay court. In nine service games, Zverev dropped only nine points, winning 36 of 45 points on his delivery.
Thus the German made history on innumerable levels. He became the youngest man to win in Rome since Rafael Nadal in 2006; the Spaniard was not yet 20 when he came through that year. Fittingly, Zverev established himself as the youngest Masters 1000 victor since Djokovic came through at Miami in 2007 when he was still 19. Zverev is the first player born in the 1990's to win a Masters 1000 championship, and is the first German to win an event at that level since Tommy Haas was victorious indoors at Stuttgart in 2001. He joins Haas, Boris Becker and Michael Stich as the only Germans to win Masters 1000 tournaments.
Irrefutably, the week in Rome belonged in the end to Zverev, who moves to No. 10 in the Emirates ATP Rankings and rises to No. 4 in the Race to London, which includes points earned solely in 2017. Although Djokovic made it somewhat easy for Zverev in the final, the fact remained that the German celebrated a scintillating week. After a three set skirmish with Kevin Anderson in the first round, Zverev accounted for Viktor Troicki, Fabio Fognini and Milos Raonic in straight sets before halting big John Isner 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-1 in the semifinals. After Isner captured the second set in a tie-break, Zverev had an early break in the third set, moving ahead 3-1. Isner reached 0-40 in the fifth game after unleashing a pair of thundering return of serve winners, but a composed Zverev held on from there and ran out the match confidently.
In the other semifinal, Djokovic did not resemble in the least the fellow who bore his name in the final. In my view, he played his finest tennis match of 2017 by far, obliterating Thiem 6-1, 6-0. Djokovic—at least as I saw it—raised his game to its highest level since he took apart Thiem in a straight set semifinal last year at Roland Garros in the semifinals. From the opening bell of this collision, the Serbian was totally concentrated, emoting freely, expressing joy in his own excellence, playing each and every point like a match point. He blended brilliance with soundness and efficiency with inspiration.
This was a sight to behold. Every Djokovic return seemed to land an inch from the baseline or on the edge of the sidelines when he went for angles. His serve was exceedingly accurate. He set the tempo from the baseline whenever possible and defended like a demon when that was required. Thiem has been the season's most consistent clay court player outside of Nadal and he is a formidable powerhouse from the back of the court—with a big and imposing serve to boot—but he never had a chance. On his way to a 5-0 first set lead, Djokovic collected 20 of 26 points.
Thiem held for 1-5 before Djokovic closed out the set 6-1 with a love game. Djokovic never lost another game. He was magnificent in every facet of the game and his court persona was much the way it used to be: exuberant, enormously intense, focussed, and unwavering. He was the Djokovic who won six of the eight majors from Wimbledon in 2014 through Roland Garros in 2016. And yet, the following afternoon he turned into an entirely different and diminished player, filled with insecurities, uncertain about what he was trying to accomplish, thoroughly down on himself.
Perhaps he was right in explaining that he had been much more accustomed to playing at night as he did against Thiem, believing that adjusting to the sunlight and windier conditions during the day hindered his performance. Undoubtedly the wind has been hazardous to his competitive health all through his career. But Djokovic should have dealt with the daytime conditions much more effectively than he did. Perhaps having Andre Agassi in his corner as a coach at the French Open will help Djokovic to emerge from his prolonged slump and start winning again more regularly and on his own terms. He needs to convince Agassi to make a longer and larger commitment.
Be that as it may, a day before losing so decisively to Djokovic, Thiem ended Nadal's 17 match winning streak with a 6-4, 6-3 quarterfinal triumph over the Spaniard, turning the tables on a player who upended him in the finals of Barcelona and Madrid. Thiem had one of his golden days in cutting down Nadal, bolting to a 5-1 first set lead before the inimitable southpaw took three consecutive games. In the second set, Thiem trailed 2-3 on serve but held in a two deuce game with an ace, and never looked back, winning four games in a row for the win. He blasted away freely from the beginning to the end of the match, and a fatigued Nadal was not up to the same defensive standards he set only five days earlier in the Madrid final. Nor was the Spaniard able to serve with the accuracy he had in Spain or dictate rallies with his fearsome forehand the way he did in their previous two clashes.
Thiem deserved his triumph completely. His ball striking was potent and precise. For the second week in a row, Thiem rescued himself mightily. In Madrid he had saved five match points to oust Grigor Dimitrov in the round of 16. In Rome, he took on Sam Querrey in the same round. The American had toppled Thiem earlier in the year on hard courts in Acapulco and he nearly did it again in Italy. Querrey was ahead 6-4 in the final set tie-break, arriving at double match point with a dazzling forehand passing shot winner released on the run. But Thiem saved the first match point with a first serve that Querrey could not handle and then the Austrian pulled the American off the court with a crosscourt backhand, drawing an errant backhand down the line from his adversary. Querry garnered a third match point at 7-6 but netted a backhand he ought to have been able to get back into play.
Thiem battled back to win 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7) and then halted Nadal for the second time in his career. Nadal's intensity meter was down; playing back to back weeks in winning Monte Carlo and Barcelona, taking one week off and then returning to win Madrid before going straight on to Rome caught up with Nadal, but the loss will not linger or lesson his status as the clear French Open favorite.
Meanwhile,Andy Murray suffered another serious setback when he was ousted 6-2, 6-4 by the mercurial Fognini in the round of 32 after a first round bye. The world No. 1 has had a highly disconcerting clay court campaign and will be hard pressed to make it back to the French Open final again this year, just as Djokovic faces a tall task to defend his title after all of his recent inconsistencies. As for Mr. Zverev, he must be commended for winning his biggest title to date. In many ways, this young man is great for the game. He is convinced he can get to the very top of the ladder, and having that degree of self conviction will not hurt him in the least because he has what it takes to eventually attain that honor.