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The next big thing in men’s tennis

• Posted in Tennis • By JoeBaker

The phrase ‘The Big 4’ has become as synonymous with men’s tennis as John McEnroe’s ‘you can not be serious’ and Roger Federer’s headband. For many years players have come on to the scene, looking like they had the potential to break the hold the magnificent quartet of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray had on the game, only to fall short or at least only sporadically make inroads into their dominance.

With Alexander Zvrev however, there is a real feeling that this may now be about to end.

Yes, Murray and Djokovic have spent a lot of time on the injury table. And yes, Federer has the luxury of picking and choosing when he graces the court. Yet, the 21-year-old from Hamburg has been pulling up trees for over a year now. A year after winning his first Masters 1000 title in Rome, he was nearly at it again at this year’s tournament, pushing the greatest ever clay player Nadal all the way in a losing cause that showed he now is ready to challenge the very best. A break up in the final set, he looked on course for his 9th ATP title until rain struck and Nadal came back. Since September 2016 the likes of Djokovic, Wawrinka, Thiem and Federer have all been dispatched as he has slowly built up his trophy cabinet. In the past two years, the former junior world number one has won eight titles - including three at Masters level - and been runner-up a further five times. Now sitting at number 3 in the world Zverev has moved from being a young talent gradually building his game to one of the most prominent, and recognisable, tennis players on the planet.

You can’t help but feel that the approaching French Open is the tournament in which he can now fully back such grand statements. Indeed, to date his Grand Slam performances have been mediocre to say the least – his best performance being reaching the 4th round at Wimbledon last year. It hardly screams future Grand Slam champion. Yet he is quickly becoming one of the best clay court players on the Tour, having already reached 6 finals on the surface, winning 4. The last few weeks leading up to a Slam are crucial and Zvrev has reached 3 consecutive finals, coming so close to winning all of them. Whether he can carry this form into the pressure cooker of a Major remains to be seen but few would argue that he is now the favourite behind Nadal. Stranger things have happened in the sport than Zvrev writing his name into history by lifting La Coupe des Mousquetaires.

So, what has changed for Zverev? What has caused such a quick rise?

Before getting into the obvious technical talent, the biggest change has been a mental one. Winning breeds confidence and the German now exerts more authority on court and is more clinical when in winning positions and composed during pressure situations. It is easy to forget his tender years, and he still has room to develop maturity-wise on court, but the difference over the last two years is stark. An example often referred to is a moment when he was just 18 years of age at Indian Wells, when against Nadal he missed a simply volley on match point before sliding to defeat. Its fair to say that such chances wouldn’t be missed in matches now.

Standing at 6ft 6 inches and with a thumping first serve, you’d be forgiven for assuming Zvrev is another of the big, flat-track bullies of the men’s game. Yet what is so impressive about his game is that, despite his height, he is so graceful and fast on the court. John Isner or Ivo Karlovic he is not. Allied to strong court movement is a breathtakingly good backhand and a far more consistent forehand. His shot judgement and game management are also quickly improving.

For Zvrev it is now all about replicating his impressive Tour form in the Grand Slams. At the age of 21 Murray had already reached the US Open Final, Djokovic had added his first Australian Open title, Federer had taken his maiden Wimbledon title and Nadal had 3 French Opens. Such a comparison is perhaps unfair yet if Zrevev is to take his game to new heights and become the star people are predicting he needs to deliver the goods on the biggest stages. Proving that he can be consistent on all surfaces is also key.

Time is on his side. However, with his present form and momentum and the men’s Tour as it is currently, there is a real opening for Zvrev – it is time he went through it and broke his Grand Slam duck. A Nadal v Zverev French Open Final is a tantalising prospect.

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