Mailbag: Alexander Zverev's Grand Slam Breakthrough Is Next Step for Next-Gen Star

In a season dominated by age-defying veterans Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, has 20-year-old Zverev has played himself into contention for the U.S. Open title? Plus thoughts on Maria Sharapova’s memoir, healthcare for tennis players and more.
Publish date:

Todd Martin is the most recent SI Tennis/Tennis Channel podcast guest. Perched on his lanai, he discussed the Hall of Fame, its protocols and standards.

Coming soon: Tracy Austin will allegedly be putting down her Lavazza coffee next week to preview the U.S. Open with us.


Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

Still think tennis is now too tough for youngsters to excel?
John Rossitter, Conn.

• This question was sent right after the Montreal/Toronto finals and, presumably, is in reference to titles won by Alexander Zverev (age 20) and to a lesser extent, Elina Svitolina (age 22).

The thinking—my thinking, anyway—is that the level of physicality today requires not simply full physical maturation but the leg strength to win best-of-five matches. Zverev can go ball-for-ball with anyone. But can he withstand three or four hours of grinding tennis? In heat? Under pressure? In Australia, Zverev had a 2-1 sets lead on Nadal. If it’s best-of-three he walks off the court a winner. Instead he cramps, wins five more games the rest of the afternoon and capitulates in five sets.

I concede, though, I’m pretty well sold on Zverev. Winning Masters events, with no days off between matches, can be just as grueling as winning Slams. (See below.) And Zverev has won two straight, one in Rome and then Canada. He also won Montreal on the heels of winning Washington D.C.—a lot of tennis in a compressed period, with lots of days in temperatures exceeding triple digits. And, he’s clearly gained leg strength and durability since last year, the legacy of fitness trainer, Jez Green.

In keeping with the adage “you can’t be favored to win a Slam until you’ve won a Slam,” I resist calling Zverev the favorite. But is he a contender? Absolutely. Should it surprise any of us if he were to win his first major on September 10**? Absolutely not.

**Note: now that there’s a roof we can issue this date with certainty.


Not to get too deep here, but WHO is tennis? I read the extremely thoughtful and certainly discussion-worthy suggestions P. Glews makes in this week's Reader Riff, and I think, "Who makes tennis decisions? Does the ATP/WTA/ITF not have a P. Glews on the payroll?"  

Your Mailbags are always full of your and readers' clever (and, sometimes, worthy) suggestions on how to improve the sport, but it doesn't seem like they make any dent. Do the millions of imaginative tennis fans (some of whom read and write into your Mailbag) and the players themselves—who seek success, health, longevity, etc.—not actually have the power to drive change?

Why the disconnect? What does the vox populi count for in tennis? As fans, what IS our capacity for changing the sport? And how can we make some of our visions for improving the sport into realities?
Mike M., Atlanta, Ga.

• It’s a great question. And one that I’ve often considered. I was complaining a few weeks ago about the unprintable vitriol spewed by a few misanthropic followers of certain players. But here’s the truth: I am consistently floored by your collective level of knowledge and passion and thoughtfulness and empathy. Not just in making GOAT arguments or breaking down Shapovalov’s backhand, but in the understanding the realpolitik of the sport. Its challenges. Its virtues. Its growth potential.

How do you all fit into the mosaic? If you're an Arsenal fan or a Cubs fans, it’s easy. You go to games or you stay home. You cheer or boo. You picket the NFL offices. You buy a PSL. You vote for All-Stars. You join Facebook groups. There are dozens of ways to feel heard and, by extension, relevant. With tennis, it’s trickier. Even if you live in a market with an event, ticket sales are becoming increasingly irrelevant. You can complain to the ATP, but that doesn’t change Davis Cup or the policy at a Grand Slam. You may be livid by the WTA’s absence from terrestrial networks and streaming. But—and I witnessed this firsthand—many of you were confused about how to vent this frustration.

Pet theory: there’s a reason so many of us bat around these what-tennis-needs-to-fix suggestions and it is this. There’s no other obvious way to bring about change. There’s no commissioner. (And John McEnroe isn’t the answer.) There are no unions. The conflicts of interests are Trumpian, if I may. The turf battles are vicious. So we all feel frustrated; but we also feel empowered.

With Roger Federer's Withdrawal From Cincinnati, Rafael Nadal Reclaims World No. 1 Ranking

Jon, who wins: Federer circa 2003 or Federer circa 2017?
Cheers, Guy

• The Federer who is healthier and lacks a tweaked back.

Jon, three questions:

1. Why don't they call 30-30 deuce? It's no different than 40-40.

2. I don't think the Masters 1000 Series events get nearly enough play in the media. I think Agassi once said that they can be harder to win than a major. As a viewer, you get the top players every day; from Wednesday through Sunday. Awesome! I almost enjoy them more than majors. Almost....

3. Speaking of Masters 1000. One cool thing about them is that they are played in such exotic locations; Shanghai; Paris; Rome; Monte Carlo; Madrid; Montreal; Indian Wells; and of course Cincinnati. Wait a minute….WHAT?? CINCINNATI??!!! Not exactly No. 1 on anyone’s most desired vacation destination list. How on earth did that town get into such rarefied air?? The name also; Western & Southern Open. Such an augur of prestige. This is one of the 13 biggest events of the year.  Were New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago not interested?? Please explain!!
John, San Francisco

• 1) Does anyone else hear 30-deuce and immediately think:

Your point is well taken. 30-30 is essentially no different from 40-40. Two more points are required to the win the game.

2) Agree. One issue with tennis: as players have—not wrongly; and very successfully—advocated for more revenue from the majors, it’s had the effect of elevating the four tournaments, which, to an unprecedented degree, are really the tentpoles. Everything else can feel a little like sandwich filling, to mix metaphors. But you're right. Winning a Masters Series event—with a higher draw cut-off, no days off in between matches, often requiring six wins in six days—can be just as much a feat as winning a major. If you want to see how brutal Masters events can be, just note the qualifying draws. Here’s one for you: Dudi Sela—fresh from beating John Isner at Wimbledon last month—didn’t even enter the Cincy qualies, opting instead to play Vancouver. Such is the depth.

3) Easy on Cincinnati. America is access roads and amusement parts and Cracker Barrel. This is a great event and it represents the U.S. more authentically than the glitter of South Beach and chaos of New York.

Beyond the Baseline Podcast: Todd Martin

To add to the question about commentators having tennis skills or not: My main gripe is when websites and TV shows use commentators who don't have any real expertise in the area (either as players, coaches or proper journalists): It's okay for a journalist not to have skills related to the sport, but they'd better be doing research by frequently interacting with players/coaches/influential tennis people... thus adding information that the reader could not easily be aware of themselves.

Unfortunately, very often these days, you see "roundtables" where the participants directly say things like "Well, I haven't talked to that player or anyone in the industry, but here's what I think..." And that is just terrible journalism!

Take care and keep up the great work!

• Thanks. Again, different broadcasters bring different skills to bear. (Unless you’re Mary Carillo and you bring them all.) Person X—notice my strenuous objection to the horribly obnoxious industry word “talent—may not be great at banter, but she is terrific at breaking down X’s and O’s. Person Y may not be a great interviewer but she was a former Grand Slam who speaks to “being there.” Person Z specializes in features or essays.

My pet peeve—and this goes for all sports—are the broadcasters who are so reluctant to offend (or foreclose a future job) that they seldom say anything of substance. The viewer doesn’t need you to explain that the player who loses the set 6-1 needs to be more aggressive and serve better; just as the NFL viewer doesn't need to be told that the sacked quarterback would have benefitted from strong pass protection. One of my producers says, “If you’re not going to be telling the viewing something they don’t already know, hold the thought.”

Svitolina Dominates Wozniacki 6-4, 6-0 for Rogers Cup Title, Fifth Title of the Year

Stopped for a light meal and a beer at a place in Stowe, Vermont, and was delighted to discover the Rogers Cup match between Shapovalov and Nadal on the TV there. What a thrill to see the young kid playing with abandon and seemingly without fear and at times just plain hitting Nadal off the court. Wherever his career goes from here (and there seems to be a lot of promise) this match will I am sure always be near the top of Shapovalov’s lifetime highlight reel, and was for me one of those moments that make sports so compelling to watch. The only downside was my rueful sense that Montreal is close, I often go the Rogers tournament, even planned to go up for a midweek session with my niece's husband, and might have been in the crowd to share the moment live but for other commitments that caused me to back away from the trip. Bottom line, though, well done Shapovalov.
Roger J.

• Well done, Shapovalov indeed. What impressed most was the close. So often we see players in the position play well against a top player, embodying the nothing-to-lose cliché. Then in the critical stages. They leave touting the “great experience” and the “great learning situation,” and “proving a lot to myself.” But ultimately it’s still an “L.” Shapovalov was down 0-3 in the third-set breaker and rallied to beat Nadal. Now THAT’s a learning experience and source of self-knowledge.

I'm an ardent reader of everything you write on tennis. Thank you very much! I'm really saddened by Vika News. I don't want to say this, but...Where was the hurry in having "a baby"? I know I know it's a personal choice. Can she really return to top-level tennis anytime soon? How bad is the mess?

• To me, the journalistic ethics here are interesting. A custody battle is deeply personal. That a child is involved gives all the more pause. But this situation could have an impact on athletic performance and on a player’s career—a two-time Grand Slam champ attempting a comeback may not appear in the U.S. Open draw on account of a court proceeding. As such, I think that makes it fair game for further (sensitive, non-sensational, measured) reporting.

With the mandatory disclaimer that the first thoughts are with the welfare of the child and an amicable resolution….one pity here is that Azarenka has/had a real chance of winning this U.S. Open title. Given the flux in the women’s game….given the absence of Serena…given that Azarenka has come with a few games of winning this title before….given the importance of competitive resolve and absence of nerves, both Azarenka’s strengths….let’s just say that the list of contenders goes down by one when she’s not around.

Report: Victoria Azarenka Could Miss U.S. Open Due to Custody Battle

Healthcare has been a huge topic of conversation lately and flipping back and forth from watching coverage on the latest healthcare bill and watching various tennis tournaments made me wonder where to tennis players get their healthcare coverage from? Basically all tennis players are self-employed so they must have to get their own. If they are from a country that has universal healthcare, this probably isn't much of an issue but I wondered how many U.S. players have plans through the ACA. I would think that they have a lot of medical bills and not just from injuries but also preventing injuries. Are players responsible for their own healthcare or is that something their agent would handle? And what about their team, do they pay for health insurance for their coach and support team or do they also have to find their own? I can't help but wonder if the ACA does get repealed how that will affect U.S. tennis players and other athletes in individual sports.
Beth, Brooklyn, N.Y.

 • From the ATP: “ACA does not really apply to our player population ….The ATP provides health insurance to professional tennis players that qualify and maintain an active ATP membership. This comprehensive insurance program includes players from all countries including the United States and covers all injuries and illnesses the player may suffer as a result of playing tennis or outside a tennis competition. Coaches and other support team members are responsible for their own health coverage. ATP does provides a liability and travel insurance for ATP Coach members.”

This is a two-tiered question/observation that I would love your insight into. Firstly in this age of social media I have noticed that many players seem more interested in cultivating their brands/personalities rather than putting in the work to make it to the top. Don't get me wrong, life isn't all about work, however instead of posting that selfie of you on the beach with cocktail in hand and pretty girl on your arm during finals weekend because you have been eliminated from the tournament, maybe you should be on the practice court trying to figure out a way to beat the guy who is in said final. It seems to be the lower tiered players who are doing this and not the likes of say Federer, Nadal, Murray, Djokovic et el.

Secondly, this new Maria Sharapova Memoir. I have just read an excerpt from her book and she discusses an incident in the locker room regarding Serena Williams. First of all isn't it an unwritten rule amongst players that you don't discuss what goes on in the locker room and second of all who thought that it was a great idea to write a memoir whilst she's still playing? For someone who is trying to warm her way back into the good graces of fans after her doping suspension she has made a series of PR blunders since her return. Maybe save the book until after you retire?

I would love to know your thoughts.
Cori, London Ontario, Canada

• 1) You sound like a coach! I bet that this summer alone I’ve heard a half-dozen ATP and WTA coaches complaining that if players showed half as much interest in burnishing their games and they show in burnishing their social media profiles, they’d be challenging for the top ranking. The obvious answer: it’s a balance. These darn millennials have fan armies and they want to support the troops (via Twitter and Instagram). The dopamine rush that comes with “likes” and “retweets” has been well-documented. Especially among these darn millennials. In some cases (see: Bouchard, Genie) sponsors expect social media activation in exchange for their endorsement lucre. So it’s not unreasonable that players to have active profiles. That said, when the posts start outweighing the on-court results, it’s not a great look. Can I get a transition from the congregation?….

2) In her book, Sharapova talks about how so many players walk off court after matches and immediately consult their phones before they even shower. This was an interesting detail and it exemplifies the rub in these ghost-written books. You have to dish a little bit, in order to get your advance and then sell copies. If it’s all unicorns and rainbows and “I loved to practice more than the other kids” and “I hate to lose at anything” and “I fought my hardest but the opponent was just too good that day,” you ain’t getting a book deal. On the other hand, dish too much and you have broken the social compact of the locker room.

Say this up front: A copy of the Sharapova book allegedly sits in my office, but I have not read it yet. I do know that she was shopping the book, years ago, well in advance of the doping suspension. Potentially, anyway, this twist makes for a richer book. It will be interesting to see how (whether?) the text reflects this abrupt and unfortunate change in the narrative.

Maria Sharapova Awarded U.S. Open Wild Card, First Grand Slam Since Doping Ban

Trust you saw the 49-stroke Zverev-Gasquet rally at Rogers Cup during which Zverev staved off elimination and went on to win (with both men fending off multiple match points). One of the all-time great match point saves and encapsulates the glory (insanity?) of modern men's tennis. And a big boost, if he needed it, for the younger Zverev's confidence on hard courts.
Leif Wellington Haase

Right on. For those who missed it:

I know Pete Polansky is Canadian and that is the ONLY reason he received a wildcard into Rogers Cup.
James, PDX

• What about his video game prowess? Cool story here.

Has anyone out there in Mailbag Nation tried WTA TV yet? The website is very light on info, including cost. Appears to be only browser based, whether on a computer or mobile device. No apps; no Roku/Apple TV. I guess it's a start.
Helen of Philly

• Anyone want to help our friend here?

U.S. Open to Test Shot Clock at Junior, Collegiate Events

Shots, Miscellany

• ICYMI, Sara Errani fails a drug test and, mama mia, puts forth the tortellini defense.

You thought Roger Federer and Venus Williams were mature?

• Dirk Nowitzki’s Pro Celebrity Classic is back.

It’s the Aktiv against cancer pro-am.

• Topnotch Management recently signed top ATP prospect, British 21 year-old Cameron Norrie.

• One film. Five legendary athletes. The compelling and inspiring story of the journeys of tennis champion Martina Navratilova, golf great Jack Nicklaus, Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci, track and field star Edwin Moses, and Dutch Paralympian Esther Vergeer. Through candid interviews and footage of their most exciting championship moments, WINNING reveals their dreams, challenges and triumphs and explores why some athletes achieve greatness. Here’s the trailer:

• Top American juniors Patrick Kypson, of Raleigh, N.C., and Ashley Kratzer, of Newport Beach, Calif., won the USTA Boys’ and Girls’ 18s National Championships this past weekend, each earning wild cards into the main draw of the U.S. Open and headlining the annual USTA National Championships that took place last week.

• Tennis Channel will be the exclusive U.S. television home of the Laver Cup, the newly created annual competition that will pit six of the top men's tennis stars from Europe against six of their counterparts from the rest of the world. The network has signed a multi-year rights agreement with event organizers TRIDENT8 and Tennis Australia, acting as sales agent, to show the matchup in its entirety, with the inaugural edition planned for Sept. 22-24 in Prague, and the 2018 event in the United States.

• This week’s LLS is from Daya from Stockholm: Liam Hemsworth and Karen Khachanov