Alexander Zverev believes Roger Federer is sharing his knowledge with players like himself, and others from younger generations, to make sure that tennis will be in good hands when the Swiss legend retires.
Zverev received a surprise pep talk from Federer following the 20-year-old German’s five-set loss to Chung Hyeon at the Australian Open in January and it had quite the impact on him.
Ranked No. 5 in the world, Zverev has had lots of success on tour in his young career, winning six titles including two Masters 1000s. But he is yet to translate that success to the Slams, where he hasn’t made a quarter-final yet.
His latest attempt to reach a last-eight stage at a major came in Melbourne, where he fell to Chung in the third round.
A disappointed Zverev was then given some words of advice from Federer, who told him not to put himself under “unnecessary pressure”.
“I didn’t expect it. I was on my bench in the locker room and he’s actually on the other side of the locker room there,” Zverev told reporters in Indian Wells about that day in Melbourne.
“He came up talking to me, I was obviously really upset, I was bummed out, losing a five-set match in a Grand Slam is never easy, especially I knew I was actually playing alright.
“It’s obviously very encouraging. He told me a little bit of a story that the first time he got past the quarters he was already 22 years old. So for me that was very encouraging, he’s the greatest player of all-time and he told me something like that, that he never passed the quarters until he was 22.
“And I’m only 20 years old. In that case I still have time to win a few majors I’m guessing. For me it’s more about winning matches and winning big titles until I get there.”
Zverev grew up idolising Federer, and has beaten the Swiss twice in five career meetings.
At 36, Federer is currently ranked No. 1 in the world and has won 20 Slams.
Zverev believes Federer has a habit of choosing promising youngsters to mentor and is pleased to be one of them.
“We know that he wants to pass on his knowledge to the guys that he thinks are going to be great as well. He’s done it on a few occasions, he’s done it with Grigor [Dimitrov] a little bit when he was a bit younger,” Zverev continued.
“He’s doing it with me a little bit now, he’s trying to talk to me, he’s trying to give me advice, even in practice when he sees something that I should do differently, like play a shot in a different way, he tells me.
“He’s obviously somebody that understands that he is the greatest player of all-time but at the same time he’s not going to play forever and he is somebody that wants to keep tennis in great hands and wants to keep tennis at the highest level it can be and he’s obviously doing everything to help that.”
Zverev is seeded No. 4 at Indian Wells and shares a quarter with No. 8 seed Jack Sock. He has the likes of Juan Martin del Potro, Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic in his half and begins his campaign against either Mikhail Youzhny or Joao Sousa.
The 20-year-old is feeling confident heading into the tournament, despite tweaking his knee against Del Potro in Acapulco last week, and insists he has zero concerns about his Grand Slam prospects.
Zverev has competed in just 11 Slam main draws so far, with his best appearance being a Wimbledon fourth round last season. He blamed the media for placing pressure on him saying: “I understand that everybody thinks I have to win a Slam within the next three months otherwise it’s a disaster for me.
“But to be very honest, I think the pressure comes a little bit from you guys as well, everybody keeps talking about the Grand Slams in our sport but obviously I’ve won two Masters so I know what it takes to win big tournaments, I know what it takes to beat the best players in the big tournaments.
“I’ve beaten Novak and Roger in those [Masters] finals, so those are not small matches for them either.
“The Grand Slam results will come, I’m not even worried about that. I said in Australia I thought I played well. I lost to a very strong Chung, who played phenomenal.
“He didn’t lose a set to anybody, but me, until he lost in the semi-finals. That is somebody who played with a lot of confidence and great feel. And I still had a chance to win, I had a chance to win that match in four sets.
“So for me it’s about getting through those matches and playing my best and the rest will take care of itself.”
Maria Sharapova admits things have been “frustrating” for her since her return from her doping ban last April, with her first round defeat to Naomi Osaka in Indian Wells on Wednesday being the latest setback for the Russian star.
Sharapova, who lost to Osaka 6-4, 6-4 in one hour and 35 minutes, fought back from a break down in each set but couldn’t stop the 20-year-old Japanese from advancing.
Physical problems have interrupted Sharapova’s comeback multiple times so far. Her most recent issue has been a forearm injury that forced her to withdraw from Dubai after she lost in the Doha first round to Monica Niculescu.
Sharapova’s loss to Osaka is her third defeat in a row on tour and takes her win-loss record in 2018 to 5-4.
“I’ve been working through a few physical things and that’s been frustrating because there’s been a lot of starts and stops since I’ve come back and that hasn’t really given me the type of playing match rhythm that I really wanted,” said the two-time Indian Wells champion on Wednesday night.
“But I felt like I committed today and there are a lot of good things that I can take away.
“It hasn’t been an easy couple of weeks since Doha, trying to get healthy, but it’s there, I need some time. I’ve done it before. It’s obviously frustrating to lose these types of matches that you get ready for and you want to win but it’s part of the process, I realise that.”
Sharapova was facing Osaka for the first time and described her as a “rising star”, commending her aggressive game.
Currently ranked 41 in the world, the five-time Grand Slam champion was one of several dangerous unseeded players in the draw – Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka are also unseeded – and is still making her way back up the rankings
“I knew that since the comeback, I have to work to get myself to be in a seeding position, to get what they call a better draw, all those things. That takes work, that takes time, I’m not afraid of any of that, I’ve been in those positions before,” assured the 30-year-old Sharapova.
Asked if she thought she would be farther along in her comeback by now, nearly 11 months into return, Sharapova said: “That’s not how I looked at my comeback. All I know is that this year I’m competing and I’m playing and last year I wasn’t in that position so I have a lot to be grateful for when I walk out through the tunnel and onto that court and I have an incredible amount of fans that watch me play and that I get to play in front of. And that I didn’t have for a long period of time so that’s a big difference.”
“How many weeks has it been since then? So I can say that now I am recovered,” the world No. 1 jokingly told reporters at Indian Wells on Wednesday. “It was tough.”
The Romanian has suffered two Grand Slam final defeats within the last nine months but has come out on the other side stronger and wiser.
She’s the top seed at Indian Wells this fortnight, where she opens her campaign against Kristyna Pliskova in the second round on Friday, and is coming off a three-week break she needed to recover from a foot injury.
Halep used the break to unwind both mentally and physically, following a draining Australian Open that saw her save match points in two different matches en route to the final. She did that while nursing an ankle and foot problem.
The 26-year-old then played Doha, where she pulled out of the tournament before her semi-final match because of her foot.
She’s been practicing at Indian Wells looking to get back to business and while she says she’s not 100 per cent just yet, Halep feels she’s “close” to her best level.
“When I came [to Indian Wells] I was a bit upset and sad on court because I didn’t feel the ball straightaway but my coach Darren [Cahill] told me ‘you were out for about three weeks so it’s normal to be up and down’,” Halep said.
It’s no secret that Halep can come down really hard on herself but she’s been working with a sports psychologist on that very issue to make sure she finds the balance between seeking perfection, while still cutting herself some slack.
“I’m always looking for perfection but at the same time I know it doesn’t exist. So it’s a little bit weird there, why I’m thinking about it, even though I know it doesn’t exist?” said a stumped Halep.
“But now I have worked with someone in this direction to be kind with myself and to understand myself that sometimes I cannot be 100 per cent on court and I just need some time. So I’m doing well in that direction and that’s why maybe I got to No. 1.”
This fortnight at Indian Wells, Halep will extend her reign at the top of the rankings to a total of 19 weeks. If she keeps the No.1 spot until after Miami, she will equal Maria Sharapova’s tally of 21 weeks at the summit.
Halep captured the No. 1 ranking for the first time last October and ended the season at the helm.
“I have learned that I’m able to do great things. Of course it was one of my dreams to get to No. 1 but I never believed 100 per cent that I’m able to do that and after I did it, it was like a relief and it gave me power that I can go ahead and do better things,” she explains.
“So I’m thinking now that everything is open and I’m able to do anything.”
The No. 1 ranking has switched hands multiple times over the past 14 months and Halep has already lost it and regained it this season, swapping positions with currently No. 2 Wozniacki.
Wozniacki could unseat Halep again after Indian Wells but she would have to either reach the final or win the title, depending on the Romanian’s results here.
Asked what it meant for the WTA tour that the top spot is moving around between multiple players, Halep said: “It means that all the girls from top-10 are really good and the level is similar. Every tournament is open and it’s more interesting in my opinion.
“We have more fun like that – changing the No. 1 more. I’m not saying that it was a boring thing Serena winning everything and being No. 1 all the time because she’s a great champion but now is different and I feel it’s more interesting, that’s the word.”