If you were watching Mischa Zverev play for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were transported back in time. The 6’3” German plays a dying art of tennis, rarely seen making an appearance on hard courts – the serve and volley.
On Sunday afternoon in Melbourne on the Rod Laver Arena, “old-school” Zverev executed his approach to near-perfection, knocking out World No 1 Andy Murray 7-5, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 in the fourth round. Over the three and a half hours, Zverev played a staggering 119 serve and volley points to beguile his opponent.
Zverev didn’t just neutralise Murray’s baseline game with his deft touch at the net, he matched it with his own wonky shots. Zverev used his wrist and a minimised swing on his forehand to move the Brit all over the court. Zverev sliced and diced from the baseline, waiting patiently for his moment to sneak into the net. Zverev strategically changed direction on the ball to drive it into corners.
If his tactics at the back of the court were smart, his performance at the net was breath-taking. He rolled back the years with his timely approaches, his crafty drop shots and his full-stretch volleys. When he made his way forward, it was almost impossible to pass him. With immaculate timing and lunging shot-making, Zverev stuck to his gameplan and never backed down.
He was in Gigantic Form
“I don’t know how I did it,” and elated Zverev said after the match. “I was like in a little coma and serve and volleying my way through it. I think you should tell me how I did it because honestly there were a few points where I don’t know how I pulled it off, I don’t know how I won some points but somehow I made it.”
There were a few points where even the fans and analysts didn’t know how he pulled them off. Serving at 15-30 down at 5-4 in the fourth set, he was put under pressure by the best returner in the game. He hooked an overhead smash in reply to Murray’s short return, and then reflexively stabbed a volley that dropped just over the net to win the point. He soon brought up match point and sealed the clash with a serve down the tee that the Scot sent long.
With his seismic win, Zverev has already ensured that he will reach a new career-high ranking of at least 35. Back in July 2009, he was ranked as high as 45. However, a multitude of injuries derailed his career and he was forced to spend several years on the sidelines. A fractured wrist, two fractured ribs, a herniated disc in his lower back, a small tear in the patella tendon in his knee, and wrist surgery in 2014 saw Zverev’s ranking plummet to No 1067. Dejected and desolate, the German was almost ready to quit and hang his racquets for good.
“There were times when I just didn’t feel like working hard or playing because I wasn’t very successful,” he recalled. “I wasn’t playing well, plus I had injuries, so it was a combination of all those things together that really didn’t make it easy,” he revealed last year after climbing back into the top 100. Despite hitting rock bottom, he was determined to stay involved with the game. He started coaching his younger brother, Alexander Zverev and a couple of his 18-year-old friends with his father, Alexander Sr, who is also a tennis coach. Alexander, or Sascha, as he is called is already a rising star at the age of 19. Sascha is one of the most talented youngsters on the men’s tour right now and is already ranked 24th in the world.
It was his younger brother who helped the older-Zverev return to competitive tennis. Zverev started with baby steps, playing Futures and Challengers in 2015 and then when his ranking was high enough, he entered the qualifying rounds of every tournament possible. In 2016, he qualified for a record 10 tournaments on the ATP tour. A resilient Zverev pushed himself to fight against the odds and his efforts soon paid dividends. He qualified for the Masters 1000 tournament in Shanghai, and then registered wins over Ze Zhang, Nick Kyrgios and Marcel Granollers. In the quarter-finals, Zverev pushed then World No 1 Novak Djokovic to three sets before losing 3-6 in the third.
He followed his impressive week in Shanghai with another one in Basel, knocking out home favourite Stan Wawrinka in their last-eight clash. It was his fifth Top-10 win and first since 2010, but perhaps one of the most crucial wins in his career. The achievement gave him a huge boost of confidence and helped his self-belief. The 6-2, 5-7, 6-1 win over the Swiss player further strengthened his resolve and made him realise the arduous long climb back has been worth it. Back then in October 2016, he set himself a target of beating his career-best ranking of No 45, a target that he already achieved.
“A big factor was my brother because he really pushed me and he made me work hard again,” Zverev said of his brother’s role in his inspired comeback. “He’s been doing really well the past couple of years and I didn’t want to be too far behind him. I feel like I can still play well and do some damage here and there and I just tried to focus a little bit more.”
“It was my brother who said, you can make it back, you can be top 100 again, be a great player. I have to say thank you to him quite a lot. When you see him doing well, there’s a lot of positive emotions in the family on the court, off the court. Even when I feel like I’m not doing too well, he’s playing finals in Halle, beating Roger (Federer) in the semis, it just gives me just positive emotions that I take with me to the next tournament and do well there,” he said after his fourth-round win at the Australian Open.
The 29-year-old will now play his maiden major quarter-final on Tuesday against Roger Federer. The last time these two met, Federer beat the German 6-0, 6-0. But the German is not looking back on his past, and is only focusing on what lies ahead for him. It’s a clean slate, a fresh start he believes. “I think I needed to drop to, like, the bottom, like with the wrist injury, where I started basically from scratch. Then all that actually helped me to understand how much tennis means to me,” he said in his post-match press conference.