Alexander Zverev has beaten Karen Khachanov to win men's singles gold at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. To celebrate, we're revisiting our 22nd FRONTPAGE issue, when we met up with Zverev in Indian Wells, California, as he was setting his sights on taking the top spot in tennis.
Getting into the Vintage Club in Indian Wells, California isn’t easy. To start, it’s in the middle of the desert. Once you’re at the gate, like most country clubs, you either have to be a member or be invited by a member just to step foot onto the grounds. That makes it all the more surprising when photographer Thomas Welch and I drive up to the main entrance and get in by dropping the nickname of the world’s #7 tennis pro: Sascha.
Once we’re officially inside, the Vintage Club’s beauty reveals itself to us, and it becomes clear why billionaires live here, on and off. Nestled in a natural cove at the base of Eisenhower Mountain, the architecture blends seamlessly with its surroundings. The golf course weaves in and out of desertscape perfection, brushing up against a waterfall here, a patch of cacti there. Our destination is the tennis courts, but even with that goal in mind, it’s hard to stay focused and not gawk around aimlessly.
When we finally arrive at the courts, we meet 22-year-old Alexander "Sascha" Zverev, practicing in what seems like his natural habitat. The first thing you notice about Zverev is how tall he is. The second thing you notice is his shaggy blonde hair. In another lifetime, he could've been a Hollister model. In this lifetime, however, he’s standing in an illuminati tennis club getting ready to warm up his backhand.
At the moment, Zverev is training for the Indian Wells Masters, the world’s most well-attended tennis tournament outside of the Grand Slams. Just a couple days after our rendezvous, news would break of the tournament’s cancellation due to a confirmed case of Covid-19 in the nearby Coachella Valley. But after speaking with Zverev for an hour, it seems unlikely the news would even make him flinch. Instead, it’s just another slice in the life of a tennis star grinding his way toward #1.
“Many think that you go out to play tennis an hour a day and then the rest of the day you stay at the beach,” Zverev tells me. “No. It's actually a seven, eight-hour-a-day job. Whether you're training or in a tournament, you’re always thinking about how to get better and how to perform better.”
In practice, that day looks a lot like this: get woken up by dogs, check phone, eat three-egg omelet with fruit salad and yogurt, get to the courts, 45 minutes stretching, 45 minutes warming up, three hours on the court, shower, quick lunch, power nap, 45 minutes stretching, 45 minutes warming up, three hours on the court, ice bath, massage, sleep, repeat.
Growing up in Hamburg, Germany in a family of professional tennis players (his parents are famed Soviet Union tennis stars Alexander Sr. and Irina Zverev, and his brother Mischa was ranked #25 in the world just a few years ago), this kind of lifestyle was practically written into his DNA. “It was a natural thing for me to become a tennis player. Without them, I would not be Top 10 now. I would not have won the tournaments that I've won in my life, guaranteed.”
He joined the pro tennis circuit at 16, looking up to guys like Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic as role models. Federer in particular has played an outsized role in Zverev's life, something he’s long been vocal about: “I respect him more than anybody else on this planet. I'm super close with him and we go out and have the greatest battles. When I have personal issues, we talk about that. It's just the perfect thing.”
His biggest athletic inspiration, however, calls a different kind of court home: “The only person I've ever been nervous playing in front of was Dwyane Wade because he's my favorite athlete of all time.”
It’s a fandom that started when Zverev was just six years old. Wade was just a rookie at that time, but he left the young athlete in awe from the moment he stepped on the court. Zverev’s never quite been able to explain what drew him to the future all-star. However, comparing his approach to the Miami Heat’s all-time leader in points, games, assists, steals, shots made, and shots offers some clues.
“You have to know how to do everything. There’s not one shot that you can perfect and then you're good to go. You have to have an all-around game. You have to have a serve, you have to have a return, you have to have a forehand, backhand, volley. You have to be physically strong.”
Call it the athlete’s version of real recognize real.
All those experiences and all those lessons look to be merging into one as Zverev comes off a disappointing 2019 that saw him lose his longtime agent Patricio Apey, separate from his girlfriend Olya Sharypova, and raise eyebrows over who his coach actually was. (Czech great Ivan Lendl? His father, Alexander Zverev Sr.?) It was a period all professional athletes go through, at some point in their careers, and it’s one that Zverev not only accepts, but seems to cherish: “Last year, when I was struggling, it showed me a lot. I learned a lot from it. I hope I can prove that us young guys are really worth the hype we get.”
The tumultuous year turned around quickly with a thrilling performance at the Australian Open, which included an early pledge to donate all his winnings to brushfire relief if he captured the first Grand Slam of 2020. “If I would've won, the $4 million [AUD] would have been great for me, but at the end of the day there are people that needed it more than me. There are people that were losing homes, people that were losing loved ones. There was wildlife being completely destroyed, the beautiful nature of Australia was completely destroyed. Rebuilding that was much more important to me than having [...] extra cash in a bank account.”
Despite coming up just short of the trophy and the millions in prize money, Zverev still donated $50,000, giving him the chance to directly impact something close to his heart. It’s a theme that runs through everything Zverev touches in his life. He’s a no-half-measures kind of guy — that’s evident in his training routine and in the way he speaks about his interests.
“My brother told me this once,” Zverev remembers. “‘At the end of the day, if you become #1 and win 25 Grand Slams, you could still end up being a shit brother. I'm going to be way happier if you're a good family person and good to your parents, and good to your brother, and good to your future wife, and future kids.’”
Now within striking distance of that coveted top spot and his passions laid bare for everyone to see, more eyes are on him than ever before. Legends of the sport Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer occupy places 1, 2, and 4, respectively. All but one of the other Top 10 spots is occupied by a 20-something; to reach number 1, Zverev will have to beat out not just the Big Three, but the best of his generation.
The French Open, the second of the four annual Grand Slam tournaments after the Australian Open, is Zverev’s chance to make 2020 the year where the changing of the guard is finally set into motion. As of today, however, the tournament is postponed to September, due to the coronavirus pandemic. There’s no word yet whether the US Open will follow suit, but if so, he might just have to wait a little bit longer.
The upside is that Zverev knows what he has to do. He identified it in Wade all those years ago. He sees it on the court 365 days a year. This time around, he just needs to wait, like the rest of the world.