TURIN, Italy — It was about the match at hand on Sunday as Alexander Zverev confidently rumbled to his second career title at the ATP Finals with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Daniil Medvedev.
Zverev, ripping unreturnable serves and spectacular swing volleys, did not face a break point against a exceedingly talented opponent who had beaten him five times in a row and stolen quite a bit of his thunder in recent seasons as the most successful man in their age group.
But Sunday was also about the matches and the season to come, which was why Zverev did not wait long in his post-victory interview to reference 2022 with a slight smile on his stubbled face.
No man has won the ATP Finals twice who has not risen to No. 1 in the rankings and won multiple Grand Slam singles titles.
For the moment, Zverev, 24, has yet to reach the top spot and yet to win one of the four major titles that remain tennis’ litmus tests of greatness.
Will he be an unfortunate exception? It is hard to believe so with his up-to-date skill set.
“I kind of have succeeded on every single level, and there’s one thing missing,” he said, referring to a Grand Slam title. “I hope I can do that next year.”
He has exceptional power and reach and, like Medvedev, remarkable mobility at 6-foot-6. He has one of the best first serves and backhands in the world and improved court positioning and a shored-up forehand that was often a decisive punch down the stretch in Turin as he knocked out the world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in a three-set semifinal and then the second-ranked Medvedev in a match much shorter in length and thrills.
“I feel like it’s inevitable Zverev is going to win a major,” said Patrick McEnroe, the ESPN analyst and former U.S. Davis Cup captain. “I’ve been saying for a couple years that he’s been knocking on the door. Now he’s banging on it.”
He was already pounding loudly in 2020 at the U.S. Open, where he lost in a nervy, five-set final to Dominic Thiem in which Zverev lost a two-set lead and both players seemed to shrink from the prospect of breaking through.
But though Zverev did not reach a Grand Slam final in 2021, this has been a reaffirming year with six singles titles, including the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo after stopping Djokovic along the way. Zverev, long considered soft when it mattered most, seems more clearheaded under duress and better at making tactical shifts and smart decisions on the fly.
“He’s been a great player for a long time,” said Mischa Zverev, his brother, who has been coaching him in their father Alexander’s absence from the tour. “Sascha has all the shots, that big serve and big backhand and is moving well. But I think this week he really played intelligent tennis and was truly an all-rounder. I even saw him hit a backhand slice down the line and come to net to finish off the volley. He stepped it up when he needed to and was very patient when necessary. He mixed up his serve very well and mixed up the pace of his shots very well.”
After complaining of weariness and losing quickly to Medvedev in the semifinals of the Paris Masters indoors earlier this month, Zverev came back at him with conviction in Turin, losing in the round-robin in a third-set tiebreaker after holding a match point and then raising the bar on Sunday, reading the flow of play, including Medvedev’s increasingly desperate drop shots.
“It was almost like he used all his senses to play today,” Mischa Zverev said of his brother. “As much as seeing the ball and feeling it when it touches the racket, he was literally trying to think a few steps ahead, trying to listen to the crowd and the way the opponent hits the ball, soaking up all the information he could get and using it to his advantage.”
It was an impressive performance but Zverev, despite his big-bang game and capacity to charm in three languages, remains a divisive figure who is difficult for many spectators to fully embrace because of the ongoing tour investigation into his alleged physical violence against a former girlfriend, Olya Sharypova. Other sports might have suspended him until the resolution of such an investigation, but men’s tennis, lacking a clear policy until this year, has allowed him to keep playing (and keep winning).
He has denied the allegations of abuse, made by Sharypova in media interviews, and said that he welcomes the inquiry so he can clear his name. He has said he has been able to play so well in 2021 because he knows the truth and is confident that he will eventually be vindicated. But his performance has been a display of compartmentalization, surely not as straightforward as Zverev has made it look.
“I’m his brother, so I’ve always had faith and belief in him from the day he was born,” said Mischa Zverev, who is 10 years older and preceded him on tour. “But yes, to win six tournaments, two Masters finals and Olympic gold, that’s a great year for anybody and especially with the things that were going on off the court, it’s more so impressive.”
But there is a cost, both in lost sponsorship and lost support.
“I think it’s affected him personally a lot more than he’s let on,” McEnroe said. “These allegations hanging over him are very uncomfortable, and we can only hope it works out for everybody, including the young woman in this situation. But the larger issue for tennis if I put on my ESPN hat and former U.S.T.A. hat is that, let’s be honest, these young guys at the moment are not moving the needle for tennis the same way the older guys have. They are not selling tickets the first week of the U.S. Open the same way that Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have been doing.”
There is an achievement gap, of course. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Djokovic have been dueling for 15 years and have won 20 Grand Slam singles titles apiece. But there is also an appeal gap with Zverev’s off-court issues and with Stefanos Tsitsipas, fairly or unfairly, having to fend off accusations of gamesmanship this summer because of his extended off-court breaks during matches and taking criticism after saying he didn’t see a need for someone his age to get a Covid-19 vaccine, though he later said he planned to get the shot.
For now, Medvedev seems the most broadly appealing of the lead pack: an unorthodox, occasionally contortionist player and creative conversationalist who engages with and sometimes confronts a crowd (as he did again in Turin) but generally with a twinkle in his eye.
He senses the concern about the future of men’s tennis but knows his history. There were doomsayers when Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe retired, doomsayers when Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi retired, but along came new champions and rivalries that gathered gravitas.
“Tennis is a great sport, so I don’t see why our generation would miss on something,” Medvedev said. “Of course, maybe we don’t do 20 Grand Slams, yet nobody did before Roger, Rafa and Novak, so they were also worse than them if we can say like this. It’s definitely not going to be a shame.”
For now, Medvedev, 25, has one major title, which came at this year’s U.S. Open where he stopped Djokovic’s Grand Slam attempt in the final. For now, Zverev has none and has yet to defeat a top-10 player in a Grand Slam tournament, but as he and his brother head to the Maldives for a break after a confidence-building season, Zverev is already flashing ahead to 2022.
“My gut tells me and not even my gut, my brain, my eyes, my senses tell me he has the talent and has everything needed to win a Grand Slam,” Mischa Zverev said. “I believe it will happen soon, but that it will never happen is also a possibility. I can’t predict the future, but I always believed he could be No. 1 and will win Grand Slams, and I still believe that.”