Alexander Zverev may have understood something.
Zverev, the talented German who fights to break through to the highest level of his sport, won the gold medal at the Olympic tennis tournament on Sunday, beating Russia’s Karen Khachanov in straight sets 6-3, 6-1.
The tournament victory was arguably the most important of Zverev’s career, especially since he upset world No.1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. Djokovic, the winner of the first three Grand Slam tournaments of the year, was looking for a Golden Slam and needed the Olympic gold medal and the US Open title later this summer to reach it.
Zverev called the win over Djokovic the proudest moment of his career, but he made a better Sunday by beating Khachanov, 25, a powerful Russian whose game recently showed signs of promise that characterized his early days. years on the circuit.
But halfway through the second set against Djokovic, Zverev had a revelation – that he had to stop rallying and start swinging the ball. He won 10 of 11 games to send Djokovic in his luggage and picked up where he left off on Sunday, playing the best four sets of his career on a big stage.
“It’s so much more important than anything else in sport,” Zverev said. “The gold medal for me, the value for me is amazing because you are not playing for yourself, you are playing for your whole country, it is an amazing feeling for me right now.”
Zverev broke Khachanov’s serve in the third game of the first set, then once again in the ninth game to win the first set, forcing Khachanov to throw a sloppy volley that strayed away from the open court.
Zverev never looked back from there, intimidating Khachanov with big serves and searing backhands and even sprinkling the drop shot and topspin lob every now and then.
A big football fan, Zverev played in a white shirt with a black edging on the sleeves – and a hint of a yellow tennis ball – that looked a lot like the uniform worn by six-time Cup champion German football teams. world.
He looked quite the best in the world on Sunday against Khachanov. By the middle of the second set, Khachanov had lost the zipper in his legs. Broken down 0-5 and in danger of an embarrassing ending, he kicked a ball high into the empty seats of the stadium.
How different a Zverev player looks from 11 months ago when, in the late stages of the US Open finals, his game turned into a series of smooth slices and second serves. In that match, he spat out a two-set lead and served for the game at 5-3 in the fifth set but couldn’t win it. He cried during the presentation of the trophies.
Zverev hit an ace at 130 mph to get two points closer to the gold medal, pushed a perfect backhand volley for the match point, then clinched the gold with a forehand from midfield . When Khachanov’s last shot sent the ball into the net, he collapsed to his knees and buried his face on the sidewalk.
“He played an exceptional game,” Khachanov said of Zverev. “I was ready. I was prepared. I was playing good tennis.
For Zverev, the only victory over Olympic triumph is his victory in the ATP final in 2018. But this event, although it means a lot to tennis players and offers one of the biggest prizes in species of the game, does not have the luster of an Olympic. gold medal.
The last two men to win Olympic gold are Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray – Murray won it in 2012 and 2016. Both are members of the game’s Big Four, which have moved on to the Big Three since Murray underwent joint replacement. of the hip.
Nadal skipped this tournament, as he did at Wimbledon, as did Roger Federer, but several of the other top players have played.
“The best players in the world were here,” Zverev said. “The only one who wasn’t there didn’t play at Wimbledon either, and that’s Rafa.”
No one at Ariake Tennis Park has lost sight of the fact that the medals were handed out by Nenad Lalovic, member of the International Olympic Committee of Serbia. Lalovic clearly expected to hand over the gold to his compatriot, but that was not the case.
The match took place as a protest against the Games outside the gates of the tennis center. Noise filtered through the stadium, forcing both players to adjust to the chants and hits.
The question now is whether Zverev can use the confidence that will come from his victory on the Olympic stage to help him win an elusive Grand Slam title, something only one currently touring player in his 20s has achieved. while Djokovic and Nadal retain their virtual stranglehold on the most important championships in the sport.
Grand Slam tennis is different, requiring players to win three sets instead of two, and then there is the pressure of the spotlight that is unmatched in the sport. An Olympic gold medal is a milestone, but Zverev doesn’t intend it to be the last he wins, although he doesn’t want to think about it just yet.
“I don’t want to talk about the next Grand Slam because I just won the Olympics,” he said. “For me there is nothing greater.”