The clouds, big and puffy white, sit still in a bright Parisian sky. The flags – from Serbia, Japan, Greece, you name it – atop a storied sports arena are limp and lazy. They flutter only on rare occasion.
Starting just after 3:00 PM, the No. 2 player in the world is in trouble on Court 1. Of course, the French Open’s court No. 1 is no ordinary court. Roland Garros’ fabled Bull Ring is a Grand Slam stadium like no other: a beautiful oval that you imagine attracting grand matadors trying to dodge charging bulls. Instead, today the Bull Ring has attracted Dutch writers, gracious French ladies and silly kids with goofy green sunglasses who offer sing-song chants.
But there is nothing silly about Alexander “Sascha” Zverev. His 6’6” body is big, but not too big, say like John Isner or Kevin Anderson. He could prove to be – even more than Juan Martin del Potro – the best big player of all time. He’s rather thin, though he’s bulking up quite fiercely. His wingspan astounds. His grand strokes are vast arcs that bring to mind a massive bird. Zverev’s a sensible German. His parents are no-nonsense Russians who teach the game. His dad, Alexander Sr., who’s his coach, was a Wimbledon long shot. His brother Mischa, an ATP pro, famously beat Andy Murray at the 2017 Aussie Open. Not since the Bryan brothers have we seen such an adept, built-in support system.
Zverev is passing through that awkward place we often see on tour. The 21-year-old left his boyhood behind, but has yet to settle into manhood. Handsome and thin, tall and focused, you sense the future is his.
The phrase “on the brink” comes to mind. He’s already won three Masters titles – in Rome and Montreal last year, and in Madrid this spring. Earlier this spring he won the Munich title, and he took a set off of Nadal in Rome two weeks ago. And if it hadn’t been for an ill-timed shower (perhaps sent to Italy by a Spanish rain god) he might well have won – he was within three games of victory.
Sascha is a force of nature. His serve lets off a frightening whoosh. His improved backhand is a laser. His forehand punishes. Amid all this power arsenal, he mixes in delicate, counter-intuitive drop shots – they should be illegal. And he’s comfortable on clay.
But let’s face it, tennis is all about the sport’s big four titles. And for all his talent, Zverev has faltered on our biggest stages. It’s hard to break through. Today’s top players have an odd grip. Zverev has never gotten beyond the fourth round of a major. He’s tripped 13 times in the first round. When he lost badly to Hyeon Chung at the Aussie Open in January, he was disconsolate. As he was beating himself up in the Melbourne locker room, a fellow player, a Swiss veteran named Federer, crossed the room and said, It’s okay guy, cool it. Your time will come. When I was young I didn’t win much of anything until I was 22. Set your sights lower. Have reasonable goals. Just try and make it to the quarters.
But today it seemed that the German might not make it out of the French Open’s second round. In the opening set he was gored badly in the Bull Ring by a stylish but little-known Serb. Dusan Lajovic captured the first set 6-2. Zverev was out of sorts. He fell awkwardly. His tan shorts were coated with red dirt. He and Lajovic then traded the next two sets. But Lajovic – who’s only ranked No. 60, but is called “the ultimate test” – wavered. His forehands flew wide or long. He dumped one drop shot after another into the Bull Ring net.
All the while, Sascha turned it on. He served better and found a rhythm on the baseline. Cream does rise to the top. The German swept through game after game.
Now the stands thinned, as Parisians headed off to munch on a waffle with chocolate sauce or a pick up a snazzy shirt for $142. Yes, Lajovic’s fans tried to muster encouraging chants. But they lacked conviction.
Sascha’s marathon 2-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 win was not pretty. But the conventional wisdom is bright. It’s said that only a bad coach, a bad girlfriend or a bad injury will derail the guy. Why not? He’s won more matches this year than anyone else and is the youngest player to reach the top three since Djokovic, eleven years ago. He has talent, size, smarts, and intent, and his nickname, Sascha, works nicely. He has a certain ferocity, ample perspective and a sense of humor. He good-naturedly jokes about the Yorkshire accent of a British writer and tells us, “I play a lot of PlayStation with Marcelo Melo and he can’t beat me. That makes me very happy.”
What we say is this: Make no mistake about it, tennis will be fully embracing this gigantic talent for years to come. And the cheers will come not only on a quaint court early in a Slam, but also deep into the second weekend of the tourneys that give us the biggest stages our sport offers. After all, these days tennis’ most important weather report is crystal clear – a Sascha storm is a comin’.