The year 2021 is a golden one for Alexander Zverev, even if the longed-for Grand Slam title doesn’t work out again: Germany’s best tennis player becomes Olympic and world champion and wants to attack the really big goals. But 2022 ends with cries of pain and far too soon.
It’s Friday, June 2nd, dark clouds hang over the closed roof of Ronald Garros’ massive Center Court as Alexander Zverev’s dreams and goals in the semifinals of the French Open are shredded for the time being. Zverev and Rafael Nadal, the best clay court player tennis has ever seen, have been working for hours. Nadal is one set ahead, with a blow deep into the corner from Zverev’s side, he wins the game to 6: 6. tiebreak. 15,000 people in the stands breathe deeply before the tie-break. But Zverev, who is playing tennis better this afternoon than he has ever done in Roland Garros, will not come back from the corner. When trying to reach Nadal’s ball, just as he had previously dug up hundreds of balls in two eternal sentences, he twisted his ankle.
It’s a terrible picture and no one doubts that this great match ended way too soon. Zverev screams, after a few minutes he is taken off the pitch in a wheelchair in tears. Brother Mischa suffers in the Eurosport studio: “Sascha never cries! Never!” Sascha Zverev could have beaten Nadal that day, the German was fully in the match, his fitness spoke for him. He could have beaten the Dominator, who had previously won thirteen times in Paris, just as he had beaten Carlos Alcaraz a round earlier. Zverev triumphed in four sets, ultimately unchallenged. That’s how good he was in those Roland Garros days.
“A certain fear is already there”
And then there was this noise: “At first you think, of course, your career is over. You can’t move your foot, you heard the sound of breaking, there’s a certain fear there,” said the Hamburger on “Sky” . It’s over. Zverev returns to the pitch on crutches, congratulates Nadal, thanks the referee and says goodbye to the audience in tears, celebrated with chants and standing ovations. It is a moment of sporting and human greatness for Zverev to bring the match to an official end in this way. The moment, it’s his. “It’s a dream to be in the final again,” says Nadal in the winner’s interview with an embarrassed expression. “But seeing Zverev crying in the dressing room was a bad moment.”
Three days later, Nadal wins the final against the Norwegian Casper Ruud in three sets and takes his 23rd Grand Slam title. Carlos Alcaraz then wins almost everything and the US Open, the teenager ends the year as number 1 in the world rankings. Alexander Zverev will not be able to return to the tour in 2022. In the meantime, others achieve his goals, his dreams. Grand Slam successes, the top of the world rankings: Zverev wants all of that too, both of which have so far been denied to him. He was often close. A triumph at the French Open would have brought him the big title and first place in the world rankings, the first German since Boris Becker’s twelve weeks at the top in 1991.
After a strong 2021, the big leap for Zverev in 2022 seems logical. At the Olympics in Beijing, Zverev won gold for himself and Germany after playing one of his best matches ever in the semifinals against the dominator Novak Djokovic. In November he became (unofficial) tennis world champion for the second time in his career. At the Australian Open in January, however, it was already over in the quarter-finals against Canadian Denis Shapovalov – and then Acapulco and the freak came, which again severely damaged his image: In a double match with his best tour buddy Marcelo Melo, he smashed his racket on the referee’s chair, the $40,000 fine seems rather mild.
“Disappointed in myself”
“It’s hard to put into words how much I regret my behavior during and after yesterday’s doubles,” he wrote shortly afterwards in an Instagram story. His outburst was “wrong and unacceptable” and he was “disappointed in himself”. “It just shouldn’t have happened and there’s no excuse,” he says. “I also want to apologize to my fans, the tournament, the sport I love.” He had previously “personally apologized” to the referee. Zverev escapes a ban, the echo from the industry is clear.
But something arises in the serious crisis, three days with the German Davis Cup team in Brazil apparently bring healing. “We’re happy that Alexander is there. His behavior in Acapulco was without question unacceptable and wrong. Alexander recognized that himself and apologized for it,” said team boss Michael Kohlmann. “We now want to help him as a team to get through the difficult phase.” Zverev wins his two singles and is easy on the team. Then things go up: semi-finals at the Masters in Monte Carlo, final in Madrid, semi-finals in Rome – and suddenly only two victories are missing for the Grand Slam triumph and the jump to the top of the world. Things turned out differently, but during his injury break the Hamburger climbed to second place, the best result of his career.
Zverev wants to “give something back”
At the beginning of August, when the professional was preparing for a faster comeback, possibly even at the US Open at the end of the month, there was good, important news: Zverev announced the start of his “Alexander Zverev Foundation” – and made public what has been suspected in the scene for years: the tennis star has been suffering from the disease since he was four years old. He and his family learned to deal with it. “I’m in the privileged position of living the life I’ve always wanted to live. […] I am very aware that not all children are so lucky and it is therefore very important to me to give something back and to help others on their way,” Zverev explains his commitment.
He had previously avoided commenting on the matter. On the contrary, Zverev had reacted at least evasively to corresponding inquiries several times in the past. In 2016, when asked by an English reporter whether he was diabetic, the German world-class player replied: “Everything that was written there is not true. Everything in this news is absolutely made up.” Critics had speculated that Zverev looked at his cell phone during the match and may have received illegal tips. “My cell phone was in the changing room,” said Zverev afterwards: “I don’t know exactly what you saw there, but it can’t have been my cell phone. Maybe an empty drinking bottle, I don’t know.”
At the time, he did not address his illness, which had now also been made official, but the ATP announced that the German had “not violated any ATP rule”. In 2019, Zverev was even confronted with cheating allegations during the ATP Finals because he rummaged in his sports bag for an unusually long time during a change of sides – and possibly measured his insulin value. With his initiative, Zverev wants to show “that you can make it very far with this disease. I want to be a role model for people who are already ill, but also be a support for the children who can still avoid it with an active life and the right prevention ‘to get diabetes’.
Meanwhile he continues to work hard in rehab, in August he will be back on the training ground and is optimistic. “Many doctors said I won’t be able to stand on the court for four months,” he reports proudly before the Davis Cup intermediate round in September in his hometown of Hamburg, “but I returned two months after the operation.” He had canceled the US Open at the end of August, but in Hamburg, as he had always emphasized during the convalescence, he definitely wanted to be back in his hometown and play for Germany. The Davis Cup week, at the end of which the qualification for the final round should be “very special”, should be “very special”.
“It’s a shame for him”
But this dream also bursts: 48 hours before the first serve of the German team, a visibly touched Alexander Zverev had to announce: It won’t work after all. He has “extremely severe pain” in the operated foot, bone edema makes him tremble about a fracture and about the progress of his career. The comeback, it dissolves in a big shock. “It’s a huge shame and sad for him. He often told us how important it is for him to play here. He was already highly motivated in Rio when it became clear that there was a chance to play the intermediate round in Hamburg. He was there today, he pushed, which was great,” says teammate Jan-Lennard Struff after his opening match against France.
In Malaga, at the finals, he also wants to be with the team, Zverev told “Tennismagazin” in August. “If I’m healthy, I’ll be there until the end.” In the press conference in which Zverev had to announce the bitter news, he said it was “not a matter of days, but of several weeks or months” before he was healthy again. Two days later it sounded more optimistic that he hoped “to be able to help the team in Malaga.” This time back on the pitch, of course, not as part of the team behind the bench.
And so the superstar also watches in Hamburg, as part of the team he sits behind the gang at all German encounters. While the colleagues hit each other, what is probably the best German tennis player of all time is signing autographs, joking and working on his role in the team. Zverev, who in tennis Germany, socialized by the folk hero Boris Becker, has long and repeatedly met with more skepticism than affection, at least gets sympathy points. But for more it is not enough until the end. The Germans travel to Malaga without Zverev, in the quarter-finals they lose very narrowly to eventual winners Canada. Another chance for the really big triumph that has to pass in 2022. It’s bitter.
“Does he have the punches? Yes!”
Now the year is over that started out difficult, then headed for a climax and ended in an almost eternal drama. And 2023 brings a new attack on the old goals: “Nothing has changed in my goals. I still want to be one of the best players in the world, I still want to win the biggest tournaments in the world,” says Zverev in an interview in As part of two show events in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, for which he is finally returning to the pitch.
“Does he have the strokes?” Asks brother Mischa in the tennis magazine and answers himself: “Yes! The fitness? Yes. Are both enough for a Grand Slam victory? Yes. He has become stronger and more mature in his head.” But: “Half a year can set you back. That will show on the pitch.” The way is long. At the United Cup, a newly created team competition at the turn of the year, Zverev goes 4: 6, 2: 6 against the world number 81. Jiri Lehecka below. “Physically, I’m not yet at the level I need to be,” said Zverev after the game. “There’s no question. I get tired a lot faster than before. I’m not as fast as I probably was.”
With the Australian Open, the first highlight of the tennis year 2023 is scheduled for January 16th. The first new chance for the big hit, it probably comes too early. Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, has been certain since the day Zverev had to bury his dreams and goals in the deep sand of Roland Garros for the time being: “I know how much he’s fighting to win a Grand Slam tournament. I’m me certain that he will win not just one, but several.”