German world No 3 was untouchable in the Spanish capital and displayed all the skills that will make him tennis' next big superstar
Alexander Zverev proved in Madrid why he will lead tennis into the post-Big Four era
It was in 2016, in the lead-up to the ATP Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, when Novak Djokovic, then the world No 1, was asked for his thoughts on the game’s future.
At the time, men’s tennis was being dominated by Djokovic and Andy Murray, who would end that year the top-ranked player after a late season rampage. Roger Federer, who returned to No 1 this week, was not far behind, while Rafael Nadal was battling back from injury and in the process of rediscovering his form. For all intents and purposes, the “Big Four” were still leading the way and sharing among them the biggest titles.
But with three of the members, at the time, all approaching 30 and with Federer heading gracefully toward the middle of his fourth decade, tennis fans were aware a new era was on the horizon.
Who had Djokovic earmarked as the player to carry the torch? Which player was the next tennis superstar in the making? Without hesitation, the Serbian replied with one name: Alexander Zverev.
Then, Zverev was 18 years old and ranked No 56 in the world. Fast forward 27 months to today and the German is behind only Federer and Nadal in the world rankings.
After his victory in the Madrid Open final on Sunday, Zverev is only the fifth active player to win at least three Masters 1000 titles, joining Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray in the elite club. Zverev is just 21 years old.
If winning the Madrid title was an impressive feat, the manner in which it was won only served to further cement Zverev’s status as tennis’ next big star.
Zverev not only won the tournament without dropping a set, he did so without losing a service game. But wait, there’s more – he didn’t face a single break point all week. That is nothing short of astounding.
The demolition job he produced in the final against Dominic Thiem, the Austrian world No 8 who in the quarter-finals had dismantled Nadal, felt like an awakening. Granted, Thiem did not have his best match, but we witnessed two players operating on different levels.
Thiem, three years Zverev’s senior, is another leading light of the next generation, but his younger rival is already streets ahead.
Zverev now arrives in Rome, where he is defending champion, on a nine-match winning run having preceded his Madrid success with the title in Munich.
What’s more, there is no discernible weakness in the Zverev game. At six foot six inches, he is tall and rangy, giving him an added advantage on serve and court coverage. He produces firepower from both wings, his crosscourt backhand particularly lethal in Madrid. His serve can be unplayable, as proven in the Spanish capital, and he is deceptively quick, gliding around the court and chasing down balls most players his height couldn’t dream of reaching.
But it is not just his tennis skills that have Zverev heading straight to the top. He exudes calmness, composure and maturity often lacking in young athletes. He appears to know exactly where he is going and how he is going to get there. He surrounds himself with family members and a small inner circle – a team with the shared goal of helping Zverev become the best tennis player in the world.
He is also a marketer’s dream: good-looking, camera friendly and scandal-free – as well as an exceptional tennis player – Zverev has already had major brands clamouring for his signature, including Adidas and Nadal’s watch company of choice Richard Mille.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Zverev, though. His record in the four grand slam events has been surprisingly ordinary, given his talent and success elsewhere. In fact, Zverev is yet to go beyond the fourth round in a major and has not beaten a player inside the top 50.
Realistically this is just one of those anomalies that will soon be overcome. With his lofty ranking, we won’t have to wait long for Zverev to make a deep run at a grand slam, and with the French Open at the end of the month, the German will expect to make a run at the title.
With Federer and Nadal still leading the rankings, and Djokovic and Murray making their way back from injuries, the “Big Four” might not be disbanding just yet. However, Zverev appears in no mood to wait for a new era.