AUSTRALIAN OPEN: When You Mischa Upon a Star

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Bill Simons

MELBOURNE

The talk Down Under was over the top.

With Andy Murray’s great nemesis, Novak Djokovic, knocked out of the Australian Open, the title was Murray’s to lose. And with the tides of change rising in the ATP, the future was Alexander “Sascha” Zverev’s to grab. “Sascha, Sascha, Sascha,” gushed the sages. The lean kid seems destined to be the game’s next big thing.

But in life, and in tennis, there’s something called non-dominance. Tennis coaches harp on the importance of using your non-dominant hand. And for decades, non-dominant siblings have done pretty well.

When Venus Williams first emerged there was a media frenzy. But her then non-dominant younger sister turned out to do okay too. John McEnroe’s brother led America to its last Davis Cup title. And Murray’s older bro, Jamie, is No. 1 in doubles.

While Melbourne analysts were smitten with 19-year old Sascha Zverev, his non-dominant 29-year old brother Mischa was pegged as a nominee for the best actor in a supporting role. After a fine junior career in which he reached No. 3 in the world, Mischa drifted in tennis’ lost domains. He battled in outback tournaments in South Texas. He dined at Subway. His concentration wavered – his will melted. The journeyman fought a slew of injuries – wrist, herniated disc, and many more. He was No. 45 when he was 21, but he never again reached that ranking. And he’d never gotten beyond the third round of a major.

Yes, hsis old school serve and volley game had its appeal. But too often when he charged the net he got schooled. He was ready to throw in the towel, but his brilliant younger bro was an inspiration. And the kid had another idea: hold on – stay in tennis. Lead me to the top.

So Mischa hit the re-start button. Good decision.

Still their were plenty of hefty bumps. Earlier this year he was destroyed by Rafa Nadal 6-1, 6-1 in the Brisbane warm-up tourney. He was almost sent packing by John Isner in the second round in Melbourne. The big American held two big match points, but couldn’t deliver. Mischa got more air time when he was repeatedly pictured in the Friends Box cheering on Sascha, who lost nobly to Nadal yesterday.

But today was Mischa’s day to shine. The lefty made the best player in the world look ordinary. His net-charging offense – he came forward an astounding 119 times – was a blur. Sir Andy Murray may prove to be a good knight, but this was a bad day at the office.

Time and again the usually consistent Scot, who had reached eight straight Aussie Open quarterfinals, was on the defensive. Sprinting in vain, framing shots, lunging and mumbling, often far off the court, he never found any kind of rhythm. While Ivan Lendl was glum, the Aussie masses were ecstatic.

Zverev had only seven aces, but it seemed like he blasted more. His wicked slices and relentless volleys – quick-flick stabs, wristy digs from his heels or savvy bunts – were masterful. Errol Flynn, the gallant swordsman, seemed to be in the house – thrust and parry.

Mischa wasn’t perfect. At crunch time he botched a sitter overhead. Perhaps, prayed Andy lovers, their man could sustain his notable record of never losing to anyone in Melbourne not named Roger or Novak. But Misha looked up to his mother, “because she always smiles on my misses.” His wise, tennis-loving family is central to his feel-good emergence.

He could have collapsed – but he powered on. Wise and insightful, this articulate veteran knows his craft, and understands the sporting life. “Mischa’s mellow,” joked one shameless media punster, “but don’t call that guy a ‘Mischa-mellow’ – he’ll burn you.”

And, in the end, Mischa burned Andy. He gathered his will and forced one last Murray error. The non-dominant brother scored a dominant win – 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 – to reach the quarterfinals, where he will face his idol, Roger Federer, who beat Kei Nishikori in five entertaining sets.

You won’t want to Mischa it.