Rising star: Alexander Zverev - family values
Because they are young and brimming with talent, and because their styles of play, careers or simply their natural affinities point to success on clay in general and at Roland-Garros in particular, Rolandgarros.com has picked out 20 rising stars – 10 young women and 10 young men – to keep a close eye on throughout the year. Having made the final of the French Open juniors in 2013 and come within a point of defeating Rafael Nadal at Indian Wells last week, Alexander Zverev has all the attributes of a rising star.
First and foremost, he is the highest-ranked player of the 1997 generation. A few months shy of his 19th birthday, he is already up to No.52 in the ATP rankings and the No.2 teenager in the world, just a few spots behind Borna Coric. Having made the semi-finals in Montpellier, the quarter-finals in Rotterdam and the Round of 16 at Indian Wells, Alexander Zverev has certainly announced his presence to the rest of the tour this year already. Ask Gilles Simon what he thinks, after losing to the young German in Montpellier and then in the third round at Indian Wells.
"Sascha", as he is known, also has wins over Marin Cilic (world No.13) and Grigor Dimitrov (No.26) to his name, and came within a point of adding Rafael Nadal to that impressive list in California. "He’s clearly a future world No.1," the Majorcan said after his close escape. "He’s got all the shots. He’s big, serves well on the first and second service, hits well from the baseline, forehand and backhand. He’s got everything he needs to become a great player."
Roger Federer is equally enthusiastic and often calls upon the German prodigy’s services as a hitting partner. "I was already a fan of Roger but that is the case even more so now that I play alongside him on the circuit," Zverev explains. "He often asks me to train with him. I don’t really know why, to be honest – but he’s been a real help to me. He gives me advice on how to behave on-court and on the best way to react in crucial moments."
Federer may be a "model" for Zverev, but he owes most of what he has already become to his family. After all, his father Alexander Sr. is a former world No.175 and also coaches his son, his mother is a tennis teacher and his brother Mischa is a fellow member of the pro circuit. Alexander junior was brought up alongside the ATP Tour, following the progress of his brother up as high as No.45 in the world in 2009 and serving as a practice partner for him at tournaments from his early teens.
From the highs of the Grand Slams to the daily grind of the Challenger circuit, Mischa has had his ups and downs, giving his younger brother an insight into what he can expect from the world of the tennis pro for the next ten years at least."We support one another a lot," says Alexander. "Mischa helped me a great deal when I turned pro. He has been on the circuit for such a long time, so he can give me advice and information on players." The youngster has a very mature view of his lightning progress to date, and much of that is again down to his entourage. "They help me keep my feet on the ground, tell me what’s good for me and what isn’t. Without them – my father and my brother – I wouldn’t be where I am now. It’s nice to get noticed but we all know that I still have a lot of work ahead of me and ahead of us before I can reach my best level."
Much of that work, which is divided between his home town of Hamburg, Monaco (where he now lives) and Saddlebrook in Florida, is carried out with Jez Green, his conditioning coach who joined him after leaving Team Andy Murray in 2013. Zverev cuts an imposing figure, measuring in at 1.98m and 86 kg, and this helps him with two of the essential ingredients of modern-day tennis, namely a fearsome service and big hitting from the baseline. What he needs to work on is his stamina and endurance, and since he is still a growing lad, a physique like his could also put him at risk of injuries. "We worked a lot during the break between seasons last year," he explains. "Lots of weights, running… We did all the really difficult stuff, but I know that I still have a lot of work to do. I’m still developing a lot physically and it’s an aspect that I need to improve if I am going to go toe-to-toe with the best at the Grand Slams." His Indian Wells third round against Nadal, where he came within a point of the finest victory of his career to date only to succumb to nerves and fatigue, should point him in the right direction regarding the work he still has to achieve.
Career to date
Having been born into a tennis family, Zverev was soon picking up the racquets of his parents, who coached the sport when they came to Hamburg after leaving Russia in 1991."When I was barely one year old, I used to spend my time pushing a ball around the apartment with a racquet, so my parents started taking me out with them to the courts,” he recalls. "From the age of five, I played around half-an-hour to an hour every day. My parents worked at the club and they finished late, and I used to say to them ‘Come on, let’s play for a while’ and they always did, even though it was seven or eight in the evening."
He also played football and field hockey, but when it came to making a choice at the age of 12, he knew exactly which sport to pick, and his rapid progress was soon proof that he had made the right decision. He was always among the front-runners for his age group, making the semi-finals of the Orange Bowl under-12s, the semis of the Petits As and the Orange Bowl under-14s and the final of Roland-Garros boys’ singles in 2013 (he lost against Christian Garin, photo). He signed off from the junior circuit in January 2014 before turning 17, but with the Australian Open junior title in his pocket. Results on the senior circuit soon followed, and by July, Zverev won his first Challenger title in Brunswick on clay at the age of 17 years and 2 months, defeating Paul-Henri Mathieu in the final. He then made the most of the wildcard offered by Michael Stich for the Hamburg (ATP 500) tournament, where he went all the way to the semi-finals, defeating Mikhail Youzhny, No.19 in the world at the time, in the process. He continued his steady progress in 2015, jumping from No.131 to No.83 in the world before really coming of age in 2016 with a startlingly impressive start to the season.
What can we expect from him this year?
Zverev is a very determined character for whom the sky is the limit, but by the same token, he is not putting himself under too much pressure."At the moment, I’m just looking to win matches," he recently said. "Obviously everyone grows up dreaming of winning a Grand Slam and that is clearly what I am working towards, but we all know that it’s a long and winding road. His immediate goal should be to make it through to the second round of a major, and having got close in recent weeks against Rafa and also Tomas Berdych (in Marseille and in the Davis Cup), his first big scalp should also only be a matter of time.