Tennis: The Zverev brothers’ contrasting path to success
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As much as it’s a privilege to play Rafael Nadal on clay, it is a prospect most tennis players dread. No one is as dominant or as adept at closing down the percentages of errors as Rafa on red dirt.
But Alexander “Sascha” Zverev sought an invitation into the lion’s den, requesting a wild card to last month’s Barcelona Open in the hope of sharing the clay court with Nadal.
“I felt I needed to play more matches on clay after Monte Carlo and Barcelona is a great event. It did not go so well against Rafa in Monte Carlo but he is the best ever on this surface and it is the kind of match you must play to improve your game,” explains Zverev, in an email interview from the Catalan capital.
Zverev, who lost to fellow NextGen star Hyeon Chung in the quarter-final, didn’t get to play against Nadal in Monte Carlo, or in Madrid two weeks later (8-14 May)—he lost in the quarters to Pablo Cuevas. But he is hard-wired for competition.
He was born into a tennis family. His parents, Alexander and Irena, both played the game professionally—his father even played in the Davis Cup for the erstwhile Soviet Union. In his brother Mischa, Sascha had his first hero and earliest rival. Tennis, basketball, video games, cards…the brothers competed at everything despite an age gap of nine years.
“Tennis is in our blood and it was natural for me to pick up a racket,” says Sascha. “I have always been competitive at everything and tennis fascinates me because it is a one-on-one sport. My parents have given me this great opportunity to play but they never pushed me. I want to play and be the best I can and they just support me 100%.”
Alexander and Irena moved to Hamburg, Germany, when Mischa was very young, in search of a better life. With both of them taking up full-time tennis coaching jobs at a club in Hamburg, the young Sascha would be left in the care of his elder brother.
“We were always busy and sport is a great way of keeping fit and focused,” says Mischa, 29. “I think Sascha has looked up to me since he started travelling on the tour as a little kid and I was playing pro tennis already. That helped him have a smoother transition into the game. I am just the older brother and look after him as much as possible.”
Even as Sascha’s prodigious talent had seen him making waves on the tennis circuit since his junior days, Mischa Zverev’s promising career was falling apart due to injuries: wrist fractures, two fractured ribs, a herniated disc in the lower back, and knee injury. From No.45 in the world in 2009, Mischa had slipped to 1,067 by March 2015, almost out of the game.
Along with his parents, he was now more invested in coaching his younger brother. When his brother turned pro in 2013, Mischa toured with him at the smaller Futures and Challengers events in obscure places.
“It was hard to see him on the sidelines, unable to play the sport he loves,” says Sascha. “I pushed him to stick around and give it another go.”
Mischa adds: “I have to thank Sascha for his encouragement at that time; he did help me a lot in those difficult moments. When I got back on tour, I did not mind playing qualifying at every event, I was just happy to be playing again.”
For most tennis players, getting past those inevitable lulls in the sport proves the toughest part, mainly because the road through tennis’ wilderness is so lonely. But the Zverevs, with the parents alternating coaching duties, travelled together, with their dog in tow, to take the edge off a demanding professional life.
“We are lucky to be playing the same sport professionally at a high level and competing in the same events,” says Mischa. “We help each other a lot but we are competitive and push each other all the time.”
The difference in their games and personalities is striking. Mischa is the stocky left-hander with the serve-and-volley game of another era. Sascha is the 6ft, 6 inches lanky youngster who sports a fashionable mop of sandy-brown hair and has the game for the future.
His big serve and solid backhand form the backbone of an aggressive baseline game, which has seen him break into the top 20. While Mischa is calmer, more collected, Sascha admits he plays the pesky younger brother to perfection.
“Sascha certainly has a tremendous appeal. He is tall, he looks like a star. Mischa has done incredible fitness work to come back from the different injuries and is enjoying being in the best shape ever,” says Patricio Apey, their agent, who has also managed players such as Andy Murray and Gabriela Sabatini.
The younger Zverev, who is currently leading the race for the inaugural NextGen ATP Finals to be held in Milan in November, is touted as one of the game’s most promising and marketable young stars and already has big brands like Peugeot on board.
Their finest moment undoubtedly came at the Australian Open, when Sascha ran Nadal ragged over five sets in the third round. A day later, he sat in the player box, watching and cheering gleefully as his elder brother created a perfect storm of serve and volley to blow away world No.1 Andy Murray. That victory made him the first from the Zverev clan to make a Grand Slam quarter-final.
Whenever they can, the Zverev brothers also try their hand at doubles. Riding on that wave of stardom and confidence from the Australian Open, they picked up their maiden ATP title together in Montpellier in February.
While they might not be all-conquering like the Williams sisters (Venus and Serena) or the Bryan brothers (Bob and Mike) in doubles, the Zverevs bring a unique appeal to the game. “Mischa and Sascha present an excellent dynamic together,” says Apey. “They are genuinely two brothers living (out) their dreams together with their parents.”