Flashback: Alexander Zverev, 17, A Star Of Tomorrow
Get a glimpse inside the life of up-and-coming German star Alexander Zverev.
A 14-year-old Andy Murray is taking a two-minute break from his practice session with Germany’s Mischa Zverev. As the pair get a drink of water, Mischa’s tiny four-year-old brother, Alex, rushes from his vantage point at the side of the court to hit some balls with his parents. Even then, he didn’t miss much.
Fast forward 13 years and Alexander Zverev is looking to follow in his big brother’s footsteps and make his own way on the ATP World Tour. Standing at 6’6’’, the tables were turned in Cincinnati over the summer as the German looked down on Murray when the pair reunited on the practice court. A huge fan of Miami Heat, Zverev could easily have looked at home on the basketball court.
“I saw him for the first time in a long time a few months ago and I couldn't believe how tall he was,” exclaims Murray.
Tossing wavy blonde hair out of his eyes, Zverev recalls in his American twang, "I was practising with Andy in Cincinnati and he told me, 'I've known you since you were this high!’
“I've known Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray since I was four years old. I didn't realise who they were. They were like little kids for me. I was just playing with them. I played soccer with them, basketball, tennis. Now, they're at the top of the game, practising with them and getting the opportunity to get to know them better is unbelievable. I'm really thankful to them for giving me the chance.”
Being around a tennis court is pretty much all that Zverev, who goes by the nickname ‘Sascha’, has known. Born in Hamburg to tennis coach parents, Sascha looked up to Mischa, watching on as his big brother went on to reach the Top 50. Aged seven, Sascha joined his brother at Florida’s Saddlebrook Tennis Academy for the first time and has returned every year for his winter training. Of late, the place he refers to as his “second home” has given him the chance to practise with leading Americans, John Isner and Jack Sock.
“I think he's very good,” says Isner. “He's very tall, which I like, obviously nowhere near as tall as me. When I practise with him, you can tell he's pretty under-developed. And that's a good thing. He's got so much room to improve. Being a tall kid, he hits the ball extremely well from the baseline. He's got a lot of weapons. I think when he grows into his body, he's going to be a force. I really think he's a good tennis player.”
For the past year, Zverev has employed the services of physical trainer, Jez Green, who was largely credited with two-time major champion Murray’s physical transformation from skinny teen to one of the Tour’s leading athletes. It’s an addition to his team that the Scot feels can only be beneficial to Zverev as he grows into his gangly body.
“Jez can help him for sure,” says the Dunblane native. “[Zverev is] very different physically to me, we're very different people, so Jez will have to do some different work with him. We've obviously worked together for a long time. He has a lot of experience on tour. I'm sure he'll do a good job."
In an era when the average age of the Top 10 is 28, it is rare to see the likes of Zverev and fellow 17 year old Borna Coric having success on the ATP World Tour. But both have managed to make their mark in 2014, with the promise of great things to come as they continue to develop physically and gain experience.
Having started the season winning the Australian Open junior title, former junior World No. 1 Zverev was outside the Top 800 in the Emirates ATP Rankings but looks set to finish it inside the Top 150 as he plays his final tournament of the year this week at the Swiss Indoors Basel. Admitting he doesn’t care much for running around the baseline, World No. 135 Zverev has managed to impose an aggressive game in leaping more than 650 spots in the rankings.
Having felt disheartened by losses in the qualifying rounds of ATP Challenger Tour events in the weeks after his Melbourne victory, things finally “clicked” for the right-hander as he seized his opportunity on home soil in the spring to make his breakthrough. He won his first ATP Challenger Tour title in Braunschweig with victory over former World No. 12 Paul-Henri Mathieu. Then, at the invitation of Michael Stich, he beat four Top 100 players en route to the semi-finals of the ATP World Tour 500 in Hamburg. His run eventually came to an end in a 6-0, 6-1 defeat to David Ferrer.
"It was definitely a great run,” remembers Zverev. “Winning Braunschweig was unbelievable, then being in the semi-finals of an ATP 500, in my hometown, that was the greatest feeling I've ever had on a tennis court. Winning matches there in front of my home crowd, knowing half the people in the stadium. I'm really thankful to Michael Stich for giving me the opportunity there.
"After the first couple of matches I was pinching myself, but then I tried not to think about where I was, compared with where I had been half a year ago. When I got in the semi-finals, I was definitely nervous. Against David, you want to play your best tennis, otherwise you're not going to win, especially on a clay court. Hopefully one day I can play like him and maybe win another couple of games!”
One player who knows all about finding his feet on the ATP World Tour is 21-year-old Dominic Thiem, who has taken 100 places off his ranking this year to break the Top 40. The Austrian and Zverev fast became firm friends after playing doubles together last week in Vienna. Thiem, who reached his first ATP World Tour final in Kitzbuhel in July, is only too happy to pass on to Zverev the same advice that friend and mentor Ernests Gulbis bestowed on him in the early stages of his professional career.
"He's a really good guy. There are not that many young guys from Austria and Germany, so I really enjoy [his friendship]. We speak the same language and have interests in similar topics,” says Thiem. One of those topics is surely hair styles. The pair could easily be in a boyband with their coiffed locks.
"If he ever wants any help, I will give him some," continues Thiem. "Ernests gave me a lot of advice, a lot of help, because he likes me. And I like Alex, maybe I can give him some advice if he wants it. Ernests told me everything about how it works on the Tour, how it is after a loss, how it is after a win. Usually you have one defeat every week because you're playing against the best players. You cannot win every tournament, which is a little bit different from juniors or the Futures where you win a lot. I think you have to learn to lose also a lot.”
Zverev is certainly not one to get too carried away with his early success. Practice sessions with Murray and Djokovic in North America gave the German insight into what he needs to bring day in, day out, to make it with the best on the ATP World Tour.
“Their practise is just way more intense than other guys, their work ethic,” he says. “If you see them in the gym, they're there an hour before practice and and then they do another hour in the gym after. How they work is unbelievable. It's probably talent as well, but most of it is hard work and I hope I can work as hard as them and we'll see where I can get.
“My Dad has the biggest role in my tennis. We both know that we have to keep on working. This is just the beginning for me. I'm only 17 years old. We hope we can have better results than Hamburg in the future. We're trying to work even harder. We just have to see what the future brings us.
“I need to improve everything. I've been hitting with Andy a little bit, Novak. Their games are so much more complete than mine. What they do on the court, I can't at the moment. So I'm trying to get better in every part of my game.”
His performances in practice and on the match court over the summer have certainly left Murray in no doubt that Zverev has the potential to be one of the world’s top players. “He's a very good player. He's obviously grown a lot over the past couple of years, so physically he needs a bit more time to mature and develop because he's a very big guy.
“He's going to be a very good player. I don't want to say how good. You never know with injuries or any distractions. I don't know how hard he works, or anything like that. But just from watching his game, I could tell he's going to be very good.”