By Mike McIntyre
In a sport that is so often dominated by talk of what a player has done in the past or what they might do in the future, it must come as a relief for 21 year old Alexander Zverev that he can at the very least enjoy the present after his 6-4, 6-4 victory in the Mutua Madrid Open finals Sunday against Dominic Thiem. The two players came into the match tied for the ATP World Tour lead in victories in 2018 with 25 apiece but it was the 3rd ranked German who prevailed for this third career Masters 1000 title. The victory makes him one of just five active players who hold that many Masters level championships. The others are notable greats Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Pretty impressive company to say the least.
While Zverev is a can't-miss future star for the sport, much has been made about his lack of success thus far in his career at the Grand Slam level. His best result to-date was a fourth round finish at last year's Wimbledon. He has yet to make it to a quarterfinal at a major and has routinely lost early to players that he should undoubtedly be beating.
Despite all the criticism, Zverev is a player that nobody wants to face at Roland Garros in two weeks time. He is a young talent who is poised for a breakthrough at the Slam level and with two of his three Masters shields coming on clay, there is no reason to think that can't happen in Paris. Those slagging Zverev's record in Grand Slam competition should take a moment to reflect on other greats whose rise in the sport came a little later than expected. Ivan Lendl didn't win the first of his eight Slams until he was 24, Andre Agassi until 22 and both Jimmy Connors and Roger Federer at 21 - the same age that Zverev just turned a few weeks ago. Federer in particular was labelled as a can't-miss prospect yet in the seven majors that led-up to his first triumph at Wimbledon in 2003 he failed to advance past the fourth round of play. Thankfully for Federer, social media did not exist back then otherwise he surely would have been receiving the kind of scathing comments that Zverev gets from his critics.
On Sunday in Madrid, Zverev came in as the slight underdog against the red-hot Dominic Thiem. Three years older, Thiem came into the match with a 4-1 head-to-head advantage over his opponent. Thiem also recently ended the incredible streak of 50 consecutive sets won on clay by the King of the surface - Rafael Nadal. Interestingly enough, Nadal's streak began following his surprising loss to Thiem about a year ago in Rome. Following the win over Nadal this year in Madrid however, Thiem was unable to continue the same level of play in the final against Zverev. Thiem was broken to start both the first and second sets and in return was unable to break the Zverev serve that had remarkably been held throughout the entire event. Zverev's serving coupled with confident play at the net allowed him to control the entire match that unfortunately failed to live-up to the hype. He won 16 of 17 first serve points in the final set and displayed an unwaivering resolve as he approached the finish line in Madrid.
As the French Open is now only two weeks away, Nadal is still the overwhelming favorite. Having his consecutive match streak broken prior to the start of his most dominant Slam is likely a blessing in disguise for the Spaniard. He no longer has to face the added pressure and questions surrounding the remarkable streak. With a career record of 79-2 in Paris, who might be capable of handing Nadal loss No. 3? After Zverev's big win in Madrid, there is no reason to think that person can't be him.