With the US Open just days away, the player heralded by many as the future of men’s tennis, Alexander Zverev, has announced the addition of Ivan Lendl to his coaching team. Lendl, an eight-time Grand Slam champion and former world #1, forged Andy Murray into a Grand Slam champion after joining his coaching team ahead of the 2012 season. They split up in 2014 before joining forces again in 2016, with Murray finishing that year at the top of the rankings and as Wimbledon champion.
Lendl’s coaching credentials were understandably burnished by that partnership with Murray and it is worth noting that the Scot has never won a Grand Slam under another coach. That is in spite of working with some of the best minds in the game, including Brad Gilbert, former Spanish Davis Cup captain Alex Corretja and former world #1 Amelie Mauresmo. All added to Murray’s game, but none had the obvious impact of Lendl. But can he help Zverev?
No – It’s a different challenge
Though Murray and Zverev were both talented players without Grand Slam crowns aiming to take that next step up when they brought Lendl on board, there are few other similarities between them. Murray had already made three Grand Slam finals when Lendl started working with him ahead of the 2012 season and was an established member of the sport’s Big Four. He was also 24 and had already proven himself an impressive athlete.
Zverev, just 21-years-old, is at a rather different stage in his career. Unlike Murray, who also had a raft of quarterfinal and semifinal appearances at the Majors under his belt, Zverev has only once been to the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam, a feat accomplished at the French Open earlier this year. Whilst Murray had consistently failed to deliver his best tennis at the business end of Slams, Zverev has yet to play his best tennis at any stage of a Grand Slam event.
Even when Zverev did make the quarterfinals in Paris, he had delivered a number of poor performances in the preceding matches which had forced him to go the distance to get the win three times in a row. As a result he was spent by the time his last eight match arrived and took a hammering at the hands of Dominic Thiem as a result. Nor is his game as close to being complete as was Murray’s in late 2011. It’s impressive for a 21-year-old, but far from the finished article.
Lendl showed that he could take Murray from being a nearly man to being a Grand Slam winner. But Zverev has yet to show that he is even a nearly man. The successes he had with Murray are no guarantee of a similarly positive impact on Zverev’s game, because the two men are not at comparable stages of their careers. The job of turning Zverev into a Grand Slam winner, and it is surely for that reason that Lendl has been hired, is much bigger than the one he did with Murray.
Yes – They have the same basic weakness
But Grand Slams can be won by 21-year-olds, even in the modern era. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic were all Grand Slam champions by the time they were Zverev’s age. And so whilst he is almost certainly not their equal, his youth does not immediately disqualify him from winning Grand Slams. He has also shown he can beat the best, with victories over Djokovic and Federer in Masters 1000 finals, although both men were carrying injuries in those matches
In truth, whilst his game does still have areas for improvement, it is probably good enough to win him a Grand Slam. But mentally he is a long way short. And that is the area that Lendl was hired to improve in Murray. Zverev has repeatedly shown that he lacks the necessary focus and ability to remain calm under pressure that winning a Major requires. Indeed, it is his difficulty concentrating for the duration of a five-set match that has so often cost him against more experienced opponents.
Zverev also has more in common with the way Lendl played than Murray which must count in their favour. In many ways Lendl was the first of the power baseliners that Zverev is the latest itineration of. Thus it would be logical to assume he is better equipped to understand Zverev’s psychology than he was Murray’s. And after the impressive strides he made in improving that very area of Murray’s game the results could be something to see with Zverev.
At worst it will be an appointment that doesn’t quite work out. But Zverev still has a lot of time on his hands with players now regularly competing well into their 30’s. There is no rush for him to find the winning formula, so long as he maintains the belief that he will find it eventually. And it is hard to imagine Zverev failing to be at all improved by Lendl, even if the results are not as spectacular as they were with Murray.
For one thing, Lendl has earned the reputation of a strict disciplinarian as a coach to accompany his legendarily icy demeanour from his playing days. And if there is one thing Zverev needs in his career it is a dose of discipline. Though the German is far from unruly and appears to diligently do his work off-court, on court he lacks discipline in nearly every sense of the word. He too often goes for too much and losing his temper, which wastes vital energy, remains a problem.
Discipline may not be the only ingredient missing and, with Nadal and Djokovic still at the peak of their powers, Zverev would likely have to battle through some serious obstacles to lift a Slam. In short, it seems almost certain that Zverev has a long path still to tread before he wins his first Grand Slam. But with Lendl guiding him, the route might at least become a little clearer.