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Steve Flink: Mischa Zverev Ascendant Again

His father was once a Davis Cup player for the former Soviet Union, and his mother achieved modest success as a competitor in her realm.

His much younger brother seems destined to one day establish himself as the best player in the world. His family looks after each other admirably, unabashedly and devotedly. They are a cohesive unit. But these days, Mischa Zverev, ever so proud of his parents and his enormously promising sibling, is finding avenues to fully explore his own talent and ambitions with growing purposefulness and productivity. The 29-year-old left-hander—ranked at a career high of No. 45 in the world back in 2009—has overcome some debilitating injuries and is currently playing some of the most convincing tennis of his career. He is back at No. 72 in the world, and surely capable of rising considerably in the Emirates ATP Rankings if his body holds up and his mind retains its current clarity.

In the middle of last week, I spoke with Zverev by telephone as he prepared to compete in the qualifying event at the ATP World Tour 500 event in Basel. At that stage, despite a stirring run the previous week in Shanghai—when he not only qualified but surged into the quarterfinals of that Masters 1000 event before losing a close contest to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic— Zverev was not yet assured of a place in the Basel qualifying draw. But a few days after we talked, Zverev did indeed get in, toppling both Vasek Pospisil and Ryan Harrison, realizing a feat no one else has equaled all year long on the ATP World Tour. This was the tenth time in 2016 that he had successfully moved through the qualifying rounds of a tournament and into the main draw. Since record keeping began in the 1980's, no one has ever qualified that many times in a year. No one.

Asked about the degree of difficulty in qualifying for so many tournaments, Zverev responded, "A lot of players don't want to play qualies but to me—especially these days where you get prize money and[ranking] points—you already feel like you are part of the whole tournament process. I am very motivated when I play qualies, and especially if I win a round, I am in the final round of qualies and that gives me extra motivation to do well. Once you are in the main draw, you are on the big stage. I have a lot more fun playing those big ATP tournaments because I enjoy the atmosphere and the feeling that you belong to the best players in the world. Personally I would rather play qualies than Challengers. I feel I am part of that whole process. It is like you surround yourself with idols and eventually you are trying to be as good as they are. It makes me work even harder. You literally have the chance by qualifying and going to the main draw to have the opportunity to play against a top ten player or the best player in the world, which happened to me in Shanghai."

Indeed it did. Not long before Zverev had earned his place in the main draw of Shanghai and eventually garnered his quarterfinal appointment against Djokovic, it seemed entirely possible that he would not even make it into the qualifying competition. As he clarifies, "A couple of hours before the deadline on Friday, I wasn't even sure if I was going to be in the qualies draw. Me and my friend Mischa [Mikhail] Ledovskikh were sitting in the players lounge and we started looking up flights to Vietnam and Monterrey, Mexico to maybe play a Challenger. But then the people in Shanghai said, 'Hold on a minute. There is still a chance you might get into the qualies here in Shanghai.' A week later we were there in the same restaurant, looking back and saying,'A week ago we weren't even sure I would be playing qualies and now we are in the quarters of the main draw.' That was amazing."

In that Shanghai qualifying draw, he prevailed in two arduous tests, defeating Karen Khachanov 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 and the ubiquitous Harrison 6-3, 5-7, 7-5. He then ousted Ze Zhang 6-1,6-2 in the first round of the main draw before beating the enigmatic Nick Kyrgios 6-3, 6-1. That was a dark moment for Kyrgios, who was later fined and suspended for his dishonorable effort. But for Zverev, it was quite simply an important tennis match that he wanted to win, and he was so committed to that task that he took no notice of Kyrgios's conduct.

As he reflects, "I knew if I won that particular match I would be back in the top 100 for the first time in five years so I just tried hard to not lose focus. It was not until after the match that I realized what a big thing it was with all of the media. When I was on the court, I was so much in the zone that everything was like a blur. At that moment I just wanted to win."

After winning 6-3, 6-1 over Kyrgios, Zverev accounted for Marcel Granollers for his place in the last eight, and there, across the net, stood Novak Djokovic. Zverev performed in exemplary fashion, serving-and-volleying with striking efficiency, closing in tight for every first volley, keeping the Serbian off balance and ill at ease with his slice backhand and solid play off the forehand. Djokovic rallied from a set and 2-0 down and twice served to stay in the match at 4-5 and 5-6 in the second set before carving out a hard fought 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-3 victory over a resolute Zverev.

As Zverev remembers, "I had not played him since 2009 but deep down I felt like I knew what he likes to do on the court and what kind of shots he would not like from my side. I actually did pretty well in the first set and the beginning of the second set, but I was getting a little tired by the end of the first set, feeling it in my legs because every single rally I had to win against him took a lot of energy out of me. Since I don't have a lot of big shots I tried to be patient and use my slice a lot. Against Novak, if you can keep the ball below waist height, that is an area where he can't do a lot of damage because he has to bring the ball back up to clear the net. Once you give him a higher ball with heavier topspin, he is not afraid of that. That day against Novak, I wasn't serving very big, but I was hitting the targets very well. I was able to use my wide serve on the ad side, but every once in a while I mixed it up with a T serve to keep him guessing a little bit. I am sure he wasn't playing his best tennis that day, but I had a good match with my serve-and-volley game."

I wanted to know how Zverev compares the challenge of competing in Challengers to what he confronts when he plays in the qualifying draws for the ATP World Tour 250, 500 and 1000 tournaments. He said, "To me the Challengers are pretty much the same level. A lot of players that are playing Challenger tournaments are soon going to play in those tour events as well. So the level between good Challengers and 250s and 500s is not a big difference. For me, I just prefer playing at those big tournaments with bigger crowds in an environment where you are sometimes surrounded by Rafa, Roger or Novak, even if I am in the qualies. I have qualified so many times this year and it is still a lot of fun."

How does Zverev define the thin line between the qualifying for those big ATP tournaments to winning matches in the main draws at a 250 or a 500 event? He answers, "I always say we are all tennis players and we are all humans. As I used to tell my brother, if you apply pressure or get the top players into a stress situation, they are going to make some unforced errors and some bad decisions. Everybody can hit a serve or a forehand and most of the players are pretty similar. The difference is that the higher the player is in the rankings, the harder it is to get that player to crumble a little bit. It might be literally 5-5 in the fifth set before Novak makes unforced errors at big moments. But a player who is ranked No. 20 in the world might crumble at 3-3 in the fourth set. And the No. 100 ranked player might hang in there for two sets, lose them both in tie-breaks and then not believe in himself anymore. But the key is you have to get them into a stress situation and that is not easy. I always have said to Sascha that you need to get them there and see what happens."

The evolution of Zverev's game took shape largely when he was 13 or 14. As he says, "That is when I changed and started playing more serve-and-volley. We would have practice sessions and out of two hours that I would play, 30 minutes would be from the baseline and the other hour-and-a-half at the net. That helped me to become a lot more comfortable at the net and to develop instinct-like skills that feel very natural to me. There are days when I don't come to the net at all and days when I don't feel comfortable from the baseline so I just start storming the net pretty much every point. So it really depends on how I am feeling."

His father Alexander, Sr. groomed Zverev's game, as was the case with Sasha. "He coached everyone," says Mischa Zverev. "He even coached my Mom back in the day and she played on the tour. Everybody in the family—my grandparents and parents—was from Moscow and I was born in Moscow, but my brother was born in Hamburg. We moved to Hamburg when I was four years old and I went to school there. I got my German passport when I was like 15 I think."

Asked if Boris Becker was his idol when he was growing up, Zverev answers, "Actually, I loved Agassi. He was my favorite player. Becker was incredible but he won his first Slam before I was born. When I was old enough to understand tennis and really enjoy the game, it was Agassi I loved watching and Sampras as well. They were my favorite people to watch growing up. I loved Agassi's outfits which were so flashy. As a young kid that is what you are attracted to. Sampras was so good in those big tournaments. He could lose in the first round somewhere but a couple of weeks later he was able to win a Slam. I was fascinated by his serve-and-volley game. Later, I liked Federer with his all around game."

Zverev established himself impressively in his early years on the tour, turning the corner as a player as he moved out of his teens and headed into his twenties. He concluded 2007 at No. 88 in the world after reaching the top 80 during the season. At the end of 2008 he was No. 80 and then he finished at No. 78 in 2009. He slipped slightly the following year to No. 82. But injuries were setting him back, and would hinder him off and on for many years. In 2014, Mischa Zverev endured surgery on his left wrist, and that was very discouraging for him.

In fact, it was Sascha Zverev who played a critical role in helping his older brother to believe again that anything was possible. As Mischa Zverev explains, "Sascha and I are very close. Sometimes we stay in the same room. We spend the off season and we literally train, eat, sleep and everything under the same roof. I try to help him as much as I can, but he tells me what he feels as well. Even though he is a lot younger than I am, he has already achieved a lot, way more than I have. When I had wrist surgery in 2014, he made me believe I could still be a top 100 player. I have to say thank you to him almost every day. He is such a young soul so he doesn't see or doesn't care about all of the problems and issues in life. To him, if you want something, you go for it. That is his attitude with his tennis. He will fight for something until he gets it."

As Zverev recollects, "Before wrist surgery, I hadn't finished a year in the top 100 for three or four years. I hadn't been playing well or winning a lot of matches. I wasn't enjoying it as much. I had pretty much hit bottom because I couldn't even hold the racket in my left hand so I couldn't do anything on the court. I had a cast on my hand and I didn't know what was going to happen. My wrist surgery was in the beginning of July and I did not start training properly until the first week of December that year of 2014. I did not play a real match until January, so it was a solid eight month period of being away. When my cast came off, my wrist that was very skinny with no muscle at all. You don't know if it is ever going to be strong again."

But Zverev progressed slowly in 2015 and then worked aggressively in 2016 to reestablish himself, and he has done just that. He has to hope now that he remains injury free and that will be crucial. As long ago as 2009—the year he reached his career peak at No. 45 in the world—he suffered his first significant injury, falling down on the court in Shanghai and fracturing his right wrist. For four to five months, he could not hit backhands. Yet he returned in 2010 and "I reached my first final in Metz that September. But during that week I actually hurt my back although I didn't know it at that point. At the end of that season, we found out it was a herniated disc in my back. That forced me to change my technique on my serve." For a period in 2010 and 2011, he could not effectively play two matches in a row because his back would lock up. His problems persisted into the summer of 2011 and his confidence started evaporating. Zverev fell out of the top 100 as his serve speed diminished. Not until the end of 2011 did he recover his self belief.

As he puts it, "In November of 2011, I actually started playing better and got closer to 130 to 150 in the world. But there was a time when I did not feel like playing because it was not going my way. And then in 2012 there were some weird bursts where I would be motivated and that was mixed with weeks I played really badly. I didn't understand it. It was not coming together. But at the end of 2012 I played two Challengers finals, losing one to James Blake and one to Jack Sock. Both were in California. I was playing really well and close to the top 100 again. I then played three Challengers in Charlottesville, Knoxville and Champaign where I thought if I could do really well, I could break into the top 100, but I got really nervous and lost early in all of them."

Disconcerted by that conclusion of 2012, Zverev struggled more in 2013 and hurt his knee that summer in Atlanta, tearing a tendon. That disrupted the rest of his season. And then came the wrist surgery in April of 2014. But he has left those rough stretches behind him, and Zverev has moved on steadily since then. He now finds himself stationed at No. 72 in the world as he starts his week in Basel, where he will meet the American Taylor Fritz in the first round. In the final round of qualifying at the Australian Open, Zverev squandered a 4-0 final set lead against the gifted Fritz. Alexander "Sascha" Zverev is only 19, ten years younger than Mischa. But he is already No. 20 on the planet, and clearly has the tools to climb to the top of the tennis mountain in tennis. The Zverev's are the first brothers to reside among the top 75 in the world simultaneously since Olivier and Christophe Rochus of Belgium did so in 2007.

Speaking of his gifted sibling, Mischa Zverev says, "He doesn't need a lot of pep talks. He is motivated more than anyone else I know. I just try sometimes to help him deal with failure. So far his career has been going uphill pretty much constantly but when you have success at a young age you can feel like nothing can go wrong. But when you have a few weeks of not playing really well or trying to defend points, I just try to help him not get too worried about it. He wants to achieve a lot of things quickly and that is good because you need that mentality to be one of the greatest players. But there are times I try to help him be more patient and calm in dealing with different situations. I try to be there for him and mainly be his friend and his older brother so he feels like everything is under control."

The Zverev brothers have played some doubles together. Mischa Zverev says, "We played in two finals, last year in Munich and another this year in Montpellier, France. It hasn't happened that often because my ranking was not always that good so we couldn't get into tournaments but, if my ranking gets a little better, then maybe next year we will have the chance to play some more doubles together. In singles, we have played twice. In 2014 we met in the qualies of the Houston clay court tournament and I won but he had to retire in the third set because he started cramping a bit and he got tired. The first time we played was in 2012 when he was only 14 and I won 6-1, 6-0. He was not very happy with me."

Plainly, Mischa Zverev is convinced that his talented brother is headed for stardom of the highest order. Asked if he envisions Sascha as a potential major champion and world No. 1, Mischa replies, "Oh yes. I have told him that since he was just old enough to understand what I am saying. Even when he was very little and he couldn't walk, he already had some kind of paddle in his hand and he was hitting balls. I remember in our old apartment we used to build a little net out of cassette tapes and we would play on a little carpet. Even then I thought he was going to be really good and a Grand Slam champion. I haven't changed the way I think of him. I think he can really do it. I believe in himself more than anyone else because I know his determination and I know what kind of person he is deep inside. His game is so good, too, and that also helps. I will do whatever he wants and needs me to do to help him out to be the best he can be."

Now turning his attention back to himself, Mischa Zverev is simultaneously upbeat and realistic. One reason he is so encouraged is because of Ledovskikh, a player who was ranked No. 151 in the world back in 2008. He has been an invaluable source of support recently. As Zverev asserts, "He is both a close friend and a coach. My Dad is traveling mainly with my brother but he has been with me and he has been a tremendous help. We were texting when the U.S. Open qualies were coming up and I asked him what he was doing. He said nothing. I asked if he wanted to fly to New York to help me out there. Two days before the qualies he was there in New York and I qualied for the first time ever at the U.S. Open and won my first round for the first time ever in the main draw. Less than two months later I am top 100 and moving up. Mischa has done a phenomenal job along with my family."

Zverev sounds like an exceedingly intelligent fellow as he muses, "The last years have been very unpredictable for me. I thought I was going to spend them in a different ranking area. So I am almost afraid to make any predictions or hope for too much, but if I stay healthy and improve a little more my baseline game, and I can get a little quicker on my feet— because I need to be very quick to come in with my serve-and-volley game and use my slice backhand—I think I can do pretty well. In tennis there are so many factors that have to be aligned for a player to have a good year or career, but I would say my ultimate goal would be to beat my career best ranking of No. 45. If I am able to do that at some point in the future, I would be the happiest camper out there."

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