By Luca Baldissera
Alexander Zverev is showcasing an extraordinary mix of talent and intensity at an impressively young age, while he still has massive room for improvement along with a real shot at greatness.
As a tennis analyst, I have never been a big fan of forecasting the future, given also the enormous complexity and potential diversity of the tennis world. Countless factors can influence a player’s results and career. From his shot-making abilities to his physical development and mental approach to the game, setbacks are always around the corner. In spite of this skepticism, I couldn’t agree more with Rafael Nadal when he said that “Alexander Zverev is clearly a future No. 1. He’s an amazing player. He has all the shots.”
I had the opportunity to witness a practice session between Zverev and Nick Kyrgios during last year’s Australian Open and I was absolutely impressed by the Hamburg native’s remarkable talent. A few days later I also watched him practice with the legendary Roger Federer in front of great hordes of devoted fans that gathered around court 18 at Melbourne Park. Federer is known for distinctively selecting his training partners based on exceptionally high standards and his decision to practice with young Zverev was definitely not a coincidence. Their practice session was absolutely stunning. Both players were striking the ball beautifully and to everyone’s surprise it was the German teen-ager that looked the most powerful and explosive of the two.
In any case, when two of the greatest legends in the history of our sport predict that a player is destined to become a champion of the highest caliber, their opinion can’t be underestimated. From a technical point of view, Alexander Zverev has all of the qualities that could potentially take him to number one in the world if he manages to remain both physically and mentally healthy throughout his career. In my opinion he could be sitting at the top of the rankings within two or three years from now.
The German is as technically flawless as his next-gen rival Dominic Thiem. We definitely look forward to plenty of epic battles between the two rising stars in the future. Alexander’s best shot has always been his impeccable two-handed backhand, although his forehand has impressively improved during the last season and has now become equally smooth and effective. His first serve is usually a bomb clocked at 200 km/h and his second serve has tremendous spin and accuracy. His athleticism still remains a minor question mark and it is interesting to see how this young man will manage his muscle growth in the next few years. Despite his 6′ 6″ height, his coordination is already outstanding and relies on excellent footwork.
His crazy talent sometimes reminds me of Martin Safin. In the vein of the great Russian player, Zverev can easily produce sudden injections of pace, consistently seize opportunities both cross-court and down-the-line, effortlessly hit inside out winners and construct successful plays from seemingly defensive positions.
For many years we asked ourselves what Marat Safin could have achieved in our sport if only had he applied a more disciplined work ethic to his training regime. I personally think that the answer to that question will be Alexander Zverev. There are certain qualities that differentiate a champion from other players, either you have those qualities or you don’t. And Zverev has them all. Compared to other fast rising stars, he seems to be ahead of his contemporaries, particularly with regard to the mental part of the game. I am convinced that sooner or later someone like Nick Kyrgios will be perfectly capable of winning a Grand Slam title, but I have a hard time imagining him sustain a high level of performance throughout an entire season. Zverev is quite the opposite and his commitment is second to none. His older brother Misha – a former top 50 player – probably played a key role in Alexander’s development on the ATP tour and taught him how to maximize his potential.
Let’s take a closer look at Zverev’s game. His two-handed backhand is pure perfection: A combination of continental-eastern grips, perfect left foot rotation, powerful right foot support and good roundness. His weight is horizontally transferred from the knee to the ball along with a precise 90° shoulder rotation. His follow-through is extremely accurate while the bottom portion of his racket handle is precisely looking in the direction of the shot.
Alexander can master his slice backhand with ease. He has the ability to stay low while maintaining his coordination from a lateral recovery position. His racket head movement from a high to low direction is impeccable and leads to a horizontal-forward finish. His left arm action is symmetrical with the right arm and his knees are bent while keeping a low center of gravity. In the upper right frame, the ball is probably 12 inches from the ground; if we look at his point of contact, we can see that his racket is as low as his mid-calf. This allows him to slice the ball with simplicity despite his 6′ 6″ height.
Alexander is hitting a forehand with vertical swing, semi-open stance and western grip. His weight is transferred from the right to left foot while his left hand is used to balance the racket, which is held vertically in order to unleash the head and begin the backswing. The middle frame at the top is capturing the moment in which his racket is going backwards and body weight is on the right foot, while his left foot is slightly raised. The middle frame at the bottom is showing the point of contact while his body weight is entirely on the left foot. His right foot is projected forwards following the hip and knee entry.
Alexander is hitting a forehand from an open stance. In the upper left frame, we can see that his left hand has just abandoned the racket while kicking off the backswing. Both feet are about to align parallel to the net. Subsequently, his body weight is transferred to the right foot; his left foot is first dragged sideways before coming up off the ground at the point of contact in order to balance the action of his hip and right knee. His left foot will touch the ground again at the conclusion of the final “windshield wiper”, which here is much more pronounced than in the forehand with vertical swing that we discussed before. In summary, Alexander can easily play a forehand down-the-line with little spin from a semi-stance as well as with full top spin from an open stance. Remarkable to say the least.
Here is a very interesting detail concerning Alexander’s right foot during his service motion. His technique is known as “foot-up”, which means that his rear foot is taking a small step forward during the action. In the middle frame, as soon as the ball is tossed up in the air, his body weight is on the left foot. His right foot is beginning to move forward with a slight external tip-toe rotation until his heel is touching the front foot.
Immediately after hitting his front foot with the right heel, his right foot is “bouncing back” with a rotation towards the inside, and is leaning parallel to the left foot. In the middle frame, Zverev is bringing his right knee towards his left knee while his shoulders are still wide open and his motion is reaching the “trophy position.” His body rotation continues to point vertically while his legs and right shoulder are joining the action at the last moment and all of this energy is powerfully transferred up to the point of contact. In this regard, Zverev vaguely reminds me of Karlovic, who is a master in using the strength of his shoulders thanks to his tall height.
Here is the beautiful conclusion of Zverev’s service motion, with a strong and fast pronation of his wrist and forearm while his arm/racket, hip and left foot are perfectly aligned at the point of contact (middle frame). A truly top class serve.
In order to analyze Alexander’s footwork and court coverage, it is interesting to watch this video from last year’s US Open. Dynamic split steps, extremely quick cross-steps, powerful strides from defensive positions, lightning recovery toward the center of the baseline and incredibly low balls retrieving are only a few of the great qualities that stand out in Zverev’s athleticism. Marat Safin was an outstanding tennis player, but he could only dream of moving as well as Zverev does. We are witnessing the rise of an extremely talented 19 year old who plays with incredibly easy power, shows great composure in pressure situations, flies around the court with an efficient footwork, trains as hard as anyone and has a cool head on his shoulders. As soon as he adds more muscle to his frame and gets more experience under his belt, tennis will surely have a new multiple Grand Slam champion.
(Article translation provided by T&L Global – Translation & Language Solutions – www.t-lglobal.com)
Does WTA Need A Top Rivalry To Drive The Sport?
Iga Swiatek is the WTA’s dominant world number one but does she need a rival in order to drive the sport to new heights.
The WTA has a dominant world number one and a variety of talented players on the tour but the one thing it’s lacking at the moment is a top rivalry.
First of all it was supposed to be Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka, then Ash Barty and Osaka and also Barty and Iga Swiatek.
However none of these match-ups created a top rivalry over a long period to generate an overwhelming amount of interest.
After Barty’s shock retirement, many people were left disappointed at the fact that her and current dominant world number one Iga Swiatek could not compete for the sport’s biggest titles in a fierce rivalry.
Now Swiatek sits at the top of the WTA rankings with almost a 4,000 point lead at the top. The rest of the field are very talented and that in itself is an intriguing aspect of the WTA’s appeal.
But the one thing the women’s game lacks is a top rivalry to generate a hype that the ATP clearly has right now.
As Mark Petchey said it’s an issue that needs solving soon as every sport has one, “Rivalries drive the sport. What they do is make sure that it manifests itself in a big polarisation of a large fan base, against another one,” Petchey was quoted as saying by Tennis365.
“You look across the board, over F1, look at the tribal nature of AFL, of Premier League football here. It’s a huge part of what you need to have a successful sport. That is the one thing that is missing from the women’s tour at the moment, is a superb rivalry, with a little bit of edge.
“That’s why I say I’m sad that Ash pulled up stumps, because I think that rivalry could’ve developed with Iga in that way. Would it have been quite as intense as the Rafa-Novak and Roger-Novak rivalries? Probably not. But it would have been there. Going into every major saying that you’re not looking forward to a specific clash potentially when the draw comes out, does hurt the tour a little bit.
“You can’t keep saying ‘oh, anyone can win it’. Because you’re just not tagging anybody… you’re not setting the scene for something amazing that’s going to happen, a nice little volcanic eruption right at the back-end of a major. They need some people to be a bit more consistent and getting through, because that’s what will be a massive driver for the WTA.”
It’s hard to argue with those points of view from Petchey as rivalries are what are talked about for decades after players have retired.
It will be interesting to see whether Swiatek will continue to dominate the rest of the field or whether someone can build a rivalry with the Pole heading into the remainder of the season.
The next big WTA event of the year will take place at the Rogers Cup in Toronto on the week of the eighth of August.
Why Celebrating LGBT+ Pride Month In Tennis Matters
Besides the fancy rainbow-coloured clothing that is worn, there is a far more important reason.
June is when players switch their focus from the clay to grass in order to tune up their preparations ahead of the prestigious Wimbledon Championships. But for some linked to the sport this month is also significant for another reason.
It is LGBT pride month which is an initiative that was originally created as a way to mark the Stonewall Riots which began on June 28th 1969 in New York. A series of protests took place in response to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn which was the catalyst in the fight for equal rights among the LGBT community. In the UK the first pride March was held in 1972 and today there are more than 100 events in the country annually.
Today Pride is about promoting equality in the world with various organizations taking part, including tennis. The British Lawn Tennis Association has gotten more involved this year by hosting a series of Pride Days at their ATP and WTA events. They have taken place on the Friday of tournaments in Nottingham, Birmingham and Queen’s. The final one is taking place this Friday in Eastbourne.
“We still live in a time when people don’t always feel like they can be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity, so the more we can do to show support and let them know everything is ok the better,’ British player Liam Broady recently said.
Some may wonder as to if Pride events such as these are necessary in tennis considering it is 2022 and lives for LGBT people have improved considerably over the years. However, there is still work to be done. One study called OUTSPORT found that 90% of LGBT+ respondents believe that homophobia and transphobia is a problem in sport and 33% remain closeted in their own sporting context. Another study conducted in recent years is Out On The Fields which found almost eight out of 10 respondents felt that an openly gay person would not be very safe as a spectator at a sporting event. Obviously, these findings vary depending on the sport and the country, but it still illustrates the seriousness of the subject.
In tennis, the WTA Tour has seen various LGBT role models triumph at the very top. Both Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were some of the very first professional athletes to come out publicly during the 1980s which was a decade when misinformation about the Aids crises lead to the stigmation of the gay community. King said she lost all of her endorsements within 24 hours after being outed in 1981 and that was before the Aids crisis erupted. Navratilova also experienced similar misfortunes.
“The WTA was founded on the principles of equality and opportunity, along with positivity and progress, and wholeheartedly supports and encourages players, tournaments, partners and fans’ commitment to LGBT+ initiatives,” the WTA told UbiTennis last week.
“The WTA supports LGBT+ projects across the tennis family, such as amplifying our athletes’ voices on this topic through the Tour’s global platforms, increasing awareness by incorporating the LGBT+ spirit into our wider corporate identity, among many other initiatives.”
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) tells UbiTennis the sport has a ‘proud history of advocating social change.’ The organization oversees the running of all junior events, Davis Cup, Billie Jean King Club and the Olympic tennis events.
“Inclusion is one of the ITF’s core values and a pillar of the ITF 2024 strategy. Tennis as a sport has a proud history of advocating social justice and instigating change. Within the tennis community, we embrace the LGBTQ community and full support any initiative, such as the celebration of Pride Month, that continues the conversation and furthers progress in ensuring sport and society are free from bias and discrimination in any form. There is always more that can be done, and we will continue to make every effort to ensure that all our participants, our employees and fans feel welcome, included, and respected day in, day out.” The ITF said in a statement.
Whilst the women’s Tour has had plenty of LGBT role models, it is different on the men’s circuit. At present there is no openly gay player in men’s tennis where around 2000 people have an ATP ranking. In recent months the governing body has looked into making the Tour more inclusive. Last year they reached out to Lou Englefield, the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they contacted Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. Monash University supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they used to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome.
It has been over nine months since news of the survey taking place emerged but the findings are still to be published. In an email to Ubitennis, the ATP confirmed that they are ‘finalizing their next steps’ and will be making an announcement shortly. They acknowledge that the survey process has taken longer than expected but it is unclear as to why.
As for those who may be experiencing difficulty in their personal lives regarding their sexuality, Brian Vahaly has his own advice which he shared with Ubitennis last year. Vahaly is a former top 100 player who came out as gay after retiring from the sport.
“Find somebody to talk to, somebody you trust. Know that people like us are there if you have questions. It’s just nice to have somebody to talk to who can help you learn about yourself,” he said.
“What I try to do is in terms of putting my family forward is that we live a pretty ‘normal life.’ I have two kids, I have a house and I walked my kids to preschool this morning. It doesn’t have to be such a defining characteristic of who you are. In the sports world, it feels that it is magnified, but what I want to show is that you can have a great athletic career, meet somebody and have a family no matter your sexuality.”
Pride is as much about making sports such as tennis an open environment for everyone as it is about marking a series of historic protests which took place in America more than 40 years ago.
It’s Unfair, Rafa Is Too Good In Roland Garros Final
James Beck reflects on Nadal’s latest triumph at Roland Garros.
This one was almost unfair.
It was like Rafa Nadal giving lessons to one of his former students at the Nadal academy back home in Mallorca.
When this French Open men’s singles final was over in less than two hours and a half, Rafa celebrated, of course. But he didn’t even execute his usual championship ritual on Court Philippe Chatrier of falling on his back on the red clay all sprawled out.
This one was that easy for the 36-year-old Spanish left-hander. He yielded only six games.
It certainly didn’t have the characteristics of his many battles at Roland Garros with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.
It must have been a bit shocking to the packed house of mostly Rafa fans.
RAFA DIDN’T MISS ‘HIS SHOT’ OFTEN
Nadal didn’t miss many of his patented shots such as his famed reverse cross-court forehand. He was awesome at times. Young 23-year-old Casper Ruud must have realized that by the middle of the second set when Rafa started on his amazing 11-game winning streak to finish off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory.
Ruud is good. The Norway native will win his share of ATP titles, but probably not many Grand Slam titles. If any, at least until Rafa goes away to a retirement, certainly on his island of Mallorca.
Rafa already has his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros. Perhaps, Mallorca should be renamed Rafa Island.
RUUD COULDN’T HANDLE RAFA’S PRESSURE
Ruud displayed a great forehand at times to an open court. But when Rafa applied his usual pressure to the corners Ruud’s forehand often went haywire.
Rafa’s domination started to show in the third set as Ruud stopped chasing Nadal’s wicked reverse cross-court forehands.
Ruud simply surrendered the last three games while Nadal yielded only three points. Nadal finished it off with a sizzling backhand down the line. In the end, nice guy, good sport and former student Ruud could only congratulate Rafa.
JOHNNY MAC: RAFA ‘INSANELY GOOD’
The great John McEnroe even called Nadal’s overall perfection “insanely good.”
If Iga Swiatek’s 6-1, 6-3 win in Saturday’s women’s final over young Coco Gauff was a mismatch, Iga’s tennis idol staged a complete domination of Ruud a day later.
It appears that the only thing that can slow Rafa down is his nearly always sore left foot, not his age. He won his first French Open final 17 years ago.
For Nadal to win a 22nd Grand Slam title to take a 22-20-20 lead over his friends and rivals Djokovic and Federer is mind-boggling, but not as virtually unbelievable as winning a 14th French Open title.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
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