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The Wayward Prodigy: It wasn't long ago that Alexander Zverev was being lauded like Carlos Alcaraz is now
The 18-year-old Spaniard has no pressing need to study the 24-year-old German's misadventures, but cautionary tales are always valuable.
Published Feb 24, 2022
WATCH: The Alexander Zverev incident, in Acapulco
Two very different types of tennis headlines were served up with your morning coffee in recent days. One of them echoed like the report of a cannon across the game on Monday morning, celebrating the newest candidate to pick up where the game’s Big Four finally leave off, Carlos Alcaraz.
In winning the Rio Open last Sunday, Alcatraz continued his dazzling transformation from eager acolyte to full membership in the game’s elite. Just 18 years old, and ranked No. 127 at this time last year, Alcaraz became the youngest player to win an ATP 500-level tournament—and the youngest since Rafael Nadal in 2005 to crack the elite Top 20 in the ATP rankings.
Then, Tuesday evening produced a different kind of headline when Alexander Zverev, currently ranked No. 3 in the world, went on an expletive-laden, racquet-smashing, menacing post-match rampage that resulted in the ATP kicking him out of the Mexico Open.
On the face of it, these two events are unrelated. Or are they?
Alcaraz may not know, or care, very much about the life and times of Zverev, a roadblock on the way to the top. If he did, he would certainly glean some valuable insight on the perils of early stardom. It wasn’t so long ago that Zverev was the anointed one, dabbed with the same oil that is now being showered upon Alcaraz.
After the Mexico meltdown, Zverev issued an Insta-apology on his social media, writing, among other things: "As you know, I leave everything on the court. Yesterday, I left too much.”
What Zverev left is a mess, which has become a serial issue with the 6’6” German in an occupation in which discipline and neatness count. True, he’s been enormously successful. Still just 24, Zverev is already a former US Open finalist, an Olympic gold medalist, and he’s ranked No. 3. But at work, 6’6” Zverev no longer stands head and shoulders above peers like Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini and a host of other hard-charging rivals. Five other players in the Top 10 are Zverev’s age or younger, and rising rapidly.
Zverev is charismatic. His sense of humor can sting as effectively as the picture-perfect, two-handed backhand that anchors his game. But in an era where aspiring champions are driven by an extraordinary degree of focus and determination, he’s become the wayward prodigy—the uber-talent whose game is too easily derailed by serving yips, listlessness (how else to explain that desultory performance against No. 14 seed Denis Shapovalov in the fourth round of the Australian Open—a tournament many had picked Zverev to win?), and bouts of aggravated behavior.
That wouldn’t be so bad if Zverev were just demonstrating that, while loaded with talent, he doesn’t want to go all-in on the discipline side of the equation. It is his life, after all. The problem, though, is less Zverev’s philosophy than the particulars of his conduct and his judgment—or lack thereof.
Alcaraz may not know, or care, very much about the life and times of Zverev, a roadblock on the way to the top. If he did, he would certainly glean some valuable insight on the perils of early stardom.
In the spring of 2020, Zverev found himself in the eye of the pandemic storm when his pal Novak Djokovic’s ill-fated Adria Tour collapsed due to reckless disregard of the dangers of COVID-19. The lads danced, shirtless, maskless, brainless, in a Serbian disco. Not long thereafter, some—including Djokovic—tested positive for the virus.
Zverev promised to self-isolate immediately after that misadventure, but less than a week later he was seen in a video on social media, partying in Monaco.
Not long thereafter, a former girlfriend went public with the charge that Zverev had violently abused her during their relationship. While no formal charges have been filed, the ATP says that it is investigating the claims that Zverev adamantly denies.
Over the same period, Zverev struggled with his serve and generally became a less consistent competitor. There have been notable exceptions, but Zverev was becoming more notable for his arrogance and aura of entitlement than his results.
And in this latest episode, in Acapulco, Zverev became incensed by the officiating of chair umpire Alessandro Germani following a loss in doubles. Zverev, who had verbally abused Germani earlier, repeatedly smashed his racquet into the leg of the tall chair as Germani sat there, alarmed. By morning, the ATP had yanked Zverev out of the singles event.
Zverev isn’t the first tennis pro to physically menace a tennis official. Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl and even Serena Williams (among others) have done it. But notably, Zverev is receiving scant little support from his peers. Tennis stars often circle the wagons when one of their own comes under heavy criticism (the vaccination controversy involving Djokovic at the Australian Open comes to mind). Not Zverev, not this time.
“It was not good. It was dangerous, reckless,” Andy Murray, competing in Dubai this week, told reporters.
Also in Dubai, Djokovic said: “I made mistakes in the past where I've had tantrums on the court. I understand what the player is going through. But, of course, I do not justify his actions.”
The things for which Zverev is becoming famous are a far cry from what the ATP Tour had in mind in 2017 when it made Zverev the centerpiece of its “Next Gen” campaign—an initiative to identify and highlight the most promising 21-and-under heirs to the ruling quartet of Roger Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray.
Zverev, already No. 3 in the world despite being just 20 at the time, bypassed the maiden Next Gen ATP Finals tournament in order to compete with Federer and company at the big-boy season-ending championships in London. Nobody in Zverev’s age group was within shouting distance of the precocious German.
Alcaraz, with his seamless game and vaguely military bearing, already looks like a different breed of cat. He’s also tucked under the wing of his “idol” (his word), Nadal. Alcaraz appears to have his role model’s power, diligence, determination—and that underappreciated asset, humility. He has no pressing need to study the misadventures of Alexander Zverev, but cautionary tales are always valuable.