By Richard Osborn
“It is a tough quarter,” said Alexander Zverev, reflecting on his 2017 BNP Paribas Open draw, the weighty reality of a collective 45 Grand Slams suddenly descending upon his shoulders. “It’s not easy. Me, Kyrgios, Novak, Rafa, Roger and Del Potro in one quarter? I don’t think that will ever happen again.”
But the #NextGenATP German — a month shy of his 20th birthday — appears up for the challenge. He wowed us on these very same courts a year ago, a lanky, free-swinging teenager who seemed to glide across the court. He took out Ivan Dodig, Grigor Dimitrov and Gilles Simon en route to a career-best ATP World Tour Masters 1000 fourth-round showing, eventually succumbing to Rafael Nadal 6-7(8), 6-0, 7-5. The loss would prove a teachable moment for Zverev, who held a match point against the Spaniard, but infamously muffed a routine volley.
He’s come a long way since. How far?
“I’m about 60 spots higher ranked,” Zverev deadpanned.
“I feel like I’m more consistent,” the World No. 20 added, just moments after his 7-6(10), 6-3 second-round win over Argentina’s Facundo Bagnis. “I can play well on a weekly basis. I’ve played against the top guys in the world and beat them a few times, so that definitely shows that I can play with them. Physically, I think I’m better. I’ve improved a lot in my footwork. I know I’m not done yet. I know I have to keep improving. There are things I can still do better.”
He’ll be further tested on Tuesday in Indian Wells, where he next faces fellow young gun Nick Kyrgios in a blockbuster third-round contest.
“I feel very excited because I think we’re the two young guys who are talked about a lot, with Dominic [Thiem],” he said. “So it would be a very exciting match. I think I’ve played well this year; he’s played well this year. So, we’ll see.”
Of course, should he survive the explosive Aussie, it only gets tougher.
“I don’t want to say that I’m going to be the champion by the end of the week, but I feel like I can play great tennis, and I feel like I can play with anybody,” said Zverev. “But we have the toughest quarter of the draw. I have a feeling that the champion might come out of this quarter. The next few rounds are going to be very, very difficult for all of us.”
Zverev will likely take inspiration from his older brother, 33rd-ranked Mischa Zverev, who in January stunned No. 1 Andy Murray in reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals — by far the best result of his career.
“It was ridiculous. I was super-happy for him,” he said. “I know the work he’s done after being injured. He had a tough road to get there. He’s been injured for five years pretty much non-stop. I’m super happy that he’s back where he belongs and that he’s playing such great tennis.”