The old guy started his second service game with a double, then the kid set him up to put a winner past him. He lost the one after that when his serve was zipped back to the baseline and he netted a backhand. Triple break point and the match is just beginning, the final of the Citi Open at Washington’s FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park.
The old guy’s all of 31, Kevin Anderson, a strong player from South Africa who was ranked No. 10 as recently as 2015; injuries last year made him drop to the mid-40s. The kid is Alexander Zverev, biggest German star since Boris Becker and leader of a cohort dubbed “next-gen” by the ATP’s marketing department, which he, Zverev, who also goes by “Sascha,” finds a bit silly: Why next? he asks. What’s wrong with now?
Currently ATP No. 8, he beat Novak Djokovic at the Rome Masters a few months ago and he beat Roger Federer at Halle in 2016. He faced Rafael Nadal three times without success. Against Andy Murray, his record is 0-1. At the Citi Open, he said he was, by the evidence, holding his own with the bigs.
I think was he actually said was “big guys,” and what he had in mind was the big four who have dominated the main events, the majors (the Grand Slam circuit) and the Masters 1000’s (the Citi is a 500) for much of the century. Players their age or close (30-36) have pressured them and challenged them and even beaten them, but they have collected the biggest shares of trophies and prize money.
Since their own generation could not crack the summits held by the Swiss-Spanish-Serb-Scottish champs, the marketing departments turned to the next one, among whom Zverev and Dominic Thiem are the biggest hopes, going by results so far. Jared Donaldson is a rising American member of this group, and the most sensational match of the week was played by American teen Tommy Paul against Kei Nishikori, who arguably is at the vanguard of the next-genners. If you think it means anything.
Thiem, seeded first at the Washington tournament, 7thin the ATP, has a four-to-one edge on Zverev in tournament play. They would’a met in the finals, except Anderson beat Thiem is a gritty three-set third-round match.
This shows the whole next-gen gimmick is just that, a gimmick. Gimmicks are great when they work, but they often fail. If Thiem is next-gen, then Jack Sock might as well be included, as they are 23 and 24 respectively. Anderson beat Sock, too, on the way to Zverev. And he also beat Yuki Bhambri, who is the Indian next gen, unless the Indians want no part of this gimmick on the grounds their greatest stars (current) are older, for example Rohan Boppana and Leander Paes, 37 and 44 respectively, or the lovely and gifted (and rich) Sania Mirza on the women’s side, whose age is, sorry, it’s poor form to say. But many of these Indians have intense personal “issues” with one another and one suspects getting into who’s next and who’s now will just make matters worse. Which would be a shame because they really can have a lot of charm on and off the courts.
Zverev is surely right, it is a silly concept, though he is too polite to put it quite that way. He knows perfectly well that he is no more “the kid” than Kevin Anderson is “the old guy”; on the court, you have an opponent and there is the ball: anything else does not matter.
Besides, Sascha’s father is a former Russian pro and his brother Mischa is currently on the Tour and he is 29. So what’s to worry about anybody’s age? He wants to beat Nadal and Federer and the rest of the field as long as they are in it, and as far as he knows they are, and will be for a while. He expects the same for himself.
To get back to that first set, Anderson saved two of those break points but smashed a volley into the net and the first break was done, the only one Zverev needed. It only lasted half an hour, because both players, that third game excepted, dominated on serve.
It was clear Zverev was not playing his top game — he did not have to, because neither was Anderson, probably worn down by those three huge victories he pulled off on successive days. Zverev’s only close call came in the second round when Jordan Thompson, an Australian next-gen if you go for the full ageism political thing (he is 23) , beat him in the first set and took him to a tiebreak in the third.
Many people respond to competitive pressure. The prez, for example: and he is all of 71. Notice that some of those young guys in the White House cannot compete with those old soldiers the prez put in there to kick ass. So it’s not only tennis. Next-gen, shnect shen.
You up your game when someone ups his, and the reverse. Both Kei Nishikori (the 2015 champion) in the semis on Saturday and Anderson in the final yesterday stepped on the pedal in the second sets. Zverev followed suit and protected his early leads. His last two matches added up to two hours and a few minutes on the court at the Stadium. This may be a record; it certainly has not been seen at the FitzGerald Center in many years, if ever. What it shows at any rate is that next or now, no one is about to underestimate Alexander Zverev.