06:03 PM GMT November 07, 2019
Bathroom breaks don’t come any more star-powered, or momentous, than the one Alexander Zverev took in Geneva this year. As well as stars, there were asterisks, as it was a colourful intervention backstage at the Laver Cup.
Walking from the court to the locker-room, Zverev was accompanied by two of his Team Europe colleagues, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who between them have qualified for the Nitto ATP Finals 32 times. That was 39 Grand Slam titles’ worth of emotional intelligence that Zverev was listening to during that interlude. If the language was spicy, then that only demonstrated the strength of feeling, with Federer telling Zverev that he wanted to see him pumping his fist, or shouting “C’mon”, every time he won a point. And when Zverev lost a point, he should “take it like a man”. Nadal chipped in: “No more negative face.”
Any account of how Zverev has made it back to the Nitto ATP Finals – where last year, aged just 21, he became the youngest champion in a decade – must surely start with what happened in Geneva.
“I yelled at him all the way to the locker-room, in the locker-room, and on the way back,” Federer has disclosed. Going on a bathroom break can turn your night, your season, perhaps even your career around – just consider Andy Murray, who, before the fifth set of his 2012 US Open final against Novak Djokovic, locked himself in a loo, stared into the mirror and gave himself a pep-talk that changed British tennis history.
Up until the Laver Cup in September, Zverev hadn’t been at all satisfied with the tennis he had been playing this year. He felt as though he had lacked belief and had played too defensively. He had been too down on himself and had been doubting his own talent. But it seems as though Federer and Nadal’s words refreshed Zverev’s mindset, as he played with conviction and an aggressive edge during the Asian swing, reaching the semi-finals in Beijing and the final at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Shanghai, where his run included a three-setter against Federer in the last eight, having had match points to beat the Swiss in straight sets.
If anyone was in any doubt that this was a rebooted Zverev, he screamed out at the end: “This is my [expletive] time.” You could forgive Zverev’s language, just as you could excuse Federer’s in Geneva. “I told him at the net that he showed great character and that he had been strong, and that he didn’t show any frustrations or too much negativity,” Federer has said. And if you’re not going to listen to the twin force of Federer and Nadal, then who exactly will you listen to?
But it would be remiss not to mention the others who have helped Zverev stay strong. While Zverev’s player-coach partnership with Ivan Lendl came to an end in the summer, the German is still coached by his father, his brother Mischa is also a professional tennis player (they won a doubles title in Acapulco this season), and his mother travels the tennis road. “It is obviously great to have your family around, you never really get homesick. You never really have the urgency to go home like other players maybe do,” Zverev said. “It is obviously great to have the close ones that know you the best and to always have them around.”
Just as important has been Zverev’s dog. “My dog always keeps me in a good mood. He is the easiest dog to travel with - you get him on a 16-hour flight and he sleeps. He doesn’t bark, he doesn’t walk around, he doesn’t do anything.”
Even when he went through a rough patch, Zverev tried to stay positive. After all, his season wasn’t as disappointing as some were making it out to be. He was still competing at the biggest tournaments in the world, and he won a title at the clay-court event in Geneva in the spring. As he remarked in August: “You can see things with the glass half empty or half full. It has not been the best year for me. For me, the year can also get better. It’s not all as bad as everybody thinks it is.”
When beating Federer in Shanghai, one of Zverev’s first thoughts was of this court in Greenwich, and the ‘Race to London’. This is the third year in a row that Zverev is among the world’s leading eight players at The O2. Zverev’s astonishing tennis here last November brought him the biggest title of his career to date – with his victories over Federer and Djokovic in his last two matches, he became the first player since Andre Agassi in 1990 to defeat the top two seeds in the semi-final and final. Plenty of history was made that day, with Zverev also the youngest champion since a 20-year-old Djokovic won the tournament in 2008, and the first German winner since Boris Becker in 1995.
And plenty more history would be made this week, should Zverev retain his title. Winning this tournament is an astounding achievement, but becoming a multiple champion brings a real elevation in status. Murray only won this title once. Agassi just has one title. Jimmy Connors and Stefan Edberg also won this tournament just the once. Zverev can this week move above those champions on the leaderboard. If he does, he might care to think back to that bathroom break in Geneva.
And if Zverev shows plenty of positive emotion this week, and avoids what Nadal calls “negative face”, you’ll know why.