When Federer won his first title in Halle in 2003, a six-year old boy a few hundred kilometres away was busy putting up posters of tennis’ latest rising star in his Hamburg bedroom. Sascha Zverev adored everything about the would-be legend, “the way he plays, but also the way he conducts himself on court,” as he said earlier this week. He wanted to be just like him, from his measured, precise groundstrokes to his wavy hair and Nike bandana.
Another boy, about three years older, carried the same admiration for the Swiss phenomenon. He came from Austria, and put in hours and hours on the tennis court to make good his precocious talent. In fact, Dominic Thiem’s backhand may well have been forged in the TV room watching his idol play.
The pair maintained their love for tennis and a determination to turn it into a career well past their childhood. It was on the ATP Tour that they met, showcasing a talent that was obvious even to the most casual observers. The chatter doing the rounds was that Zverev and Thiem were truly a pair of exciting prospects who could make a real impact in the game.
Their paths never crossed with Federer until this year; they were striving to make their names on the tennis court, while Federer went about continuing where he left off in 2015. Federer eased past Thiem in their first encounter in Brisbane in January, and dispatched Zverev in their maiden meeting in Rome. Thiem’s victory in the following match in the Italian capital was put down to a back injury that has afflicted the 34-year old for much of this year, serious enough to force him to miss Roland Garros, the only Grand Slam Federer has been absent from in the 21st century.
As the grass season came around, however, all that was expected to be in the past. Federer has had blips before, but it was unthinkable they would afflict him on the lawns of Germany. As it was, Federer was good for large phases, both in Stuttgart and in Halle, but it turned out he missed big chances when it mattered most.
In the semis in Stuttgart, Thiem made him pay for a costly error at the net when the Swiss had match point, the youngster digging in to take the match to the decider, where he simply outlasted his hero. At the same stage the following week in Halle against Zverev, where – remember – Federer has won twice as many titles as Thiem and Zverev have in their combined careers, he found himself outmuscled and bullied around a court that has brought him more success than any other. By a gangly teenager who revered him, of all people.
It was Federer’s first defeat to a teenager in a decade. That teenager, Zverev would do well to remember the last, a certain Andy Murray.
Although the days of Federer’s domination of men’s tennis have long ended, his career has never screeched to a halt or form never plummeted; all that would be out of place for a man of Federer’s grace, which seems to extend to every facet of his life on and off of the court. He continues to play sublime tennis more often than not, his fans and the public at large content to remember his masterclasses and forget about the disappointments. He remains the biggest draw in the sport (a statement that holds true despite Novak Djokovic’s success), and by far the most popular player on the circuit. Because Roger Federer the brand always seems to be on the rise, it becomes tricky to extricate it from the tennis player.
Which is why, just as Wimbledon approaches, it is important to pick up on the significance of what preceded it. It is a shame the grass court season is as short as it is (the sport is no longer known as “lawn tennis” for a reason), but this year, it could not be more instructive. Zverev and Thiem’s defeats of their idol bring into focus a generation of rising tennis players who grew up admiring a Swiss maestro they now share a locker room and tennis court with. Belgium’s David Goffin has never been shy to express his admiration for Federer, while American teen Taylor Fritz doesn’t need to think too much to name his favourite player growing up either.
The experience of being on tour with the player who inspired you to pick-up a racket must be magical beyond description. In the prosaic, indifferent world of ranking points and results, one would be poorer not to stop and absorb the poignancy of what seems to have taken place over the past fortnight. When Federer walked up to Thiem in Stuttgart and Zverev in Halle after his losses, his racket looked a little like a baton, and in the moment he shook hands to congratulate his boyhood fans, it might just have passed over definitively.
If you were to walk into the bedrooms that Zverev, Thiem, Goffin or Fritz used to occupy as children, the posters may very well still be there, but one can’t help imagining them to be ever-so-slightly sepia-toned now. Federer could very well go on to win his eighth Wimbledon in just over a fortnight, but it might be time to look ahead past the man and to the boys he inspired, the boys whose rooms may soon have plenty of trophies to keep those aging posters company.
Teenager Alexander Zverev caused a major shock as he beat top seed Roger Federer in the Halle semi-finals Saturday.
The 19-year-old Zverev triumphed 7-6 (7/4), 5-7, 6-3 to reach only his second ATP Tour final after being beaten by Dominic Thiem on clay in Nice last month.
Here are 10 facts about the rising German star.
1. Alexander’s father – Alexander – was also a professional tennis player. His father played in the Soviet Union before the family moved to Germany in 1991. His mother Irena is a tennis coach.
2. His older brother Mischa – now 28 – is also a pro and topped the rankings at No. 45 in 2009.
3. Between October 2013 and June 2014, Alexander occupied the World No1 spot in the Junior rankings.
4. Alexander first captured the imagination of tennis fans in 2014 by clinching the Braunschweig title at just 17, becoming the youngest player to secure an ATP Challenger Trophy since Bernard Tomic in 2009.
5. He is part of ATP’s Next Generation campaign, which includes 14 of the top young players on tour born in 1995 or later.
6. Now 19, Alexander is currently the youngest player in the top-50.
7. At 6ft 6, he could have even been a basketball star with his towering frame, and considers himself a Miami Heat fanatic.
8. He counts LeBron James and Roger Federer among his role models.
9. He is known for his powerful serving, with first-serves regularly going over 130 mph.
10. Alexander’s close friends on tour include Nick Kyrgios, Thanasi Kokkinakis and Andrey Rublev.
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Open Court is CNN’s monthly show featuring all things tennis, presented by Pat Cash.
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