Tennis: The trapper puts up the bear trap

Tennis: The trapper puts up the bear trap

The cooperation between Ivan Lendl and Alexander Zverev is the most exciting project in the world class. The coach now has to crawl into the player's head to steel him.


From Gerald Kleffmann, London

Comfortably they crawled on the seats, Alexander Zverev left, Ivan Lendl right. They were silent together. Then one said something. The other listened. Then the other answered. Suddenly, Lendl smiled, it was that snarling smile that you know from yesteryear, when he was a pro and got into memorable nerve battles with John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker. Lendl, he was the one who sawdust in the pockets of his too-tight tennis shorts. And that he used to have a drier grip. Lendl was the one who always had to serve as the evil in the duels with the Americans, but often enough he triumphed.

Two blemishes only clung to him: he never won Wimbledon. And once he let himself be paraded by a little schnibbler. Michael Chang twirled him at the French Open a serve from below rudely into the field. He looked bad, but his reputation as a rogue did not really hurt. As a coach, he even cemented this, as he helped the fickle Andy Murray years later to the first Grand Slam victories and Olympic gold.

And that's why Lendl is now sitting in London in this small training hall, on a weekday at the ATP Finals in London. He should and wants to give this 1.98-meter giant from Germany his riot. What does it look like? Sometimes, that's no secret, just talk about dogs. Lendl is a dog fan. And Zverev's family also owns a small, Lövik's name is. And then, when tactical views on tennis are mixed, this is a climate Zverev likes to be comfortable with.

Alexander Zverev, 21, brother of Mischa, 31, also a professional, born in Hamburg, Russian tennis parents, number five in the world, resident Monte Carlo, soon in Dubai and on the Maldives on vacation, lives the successful tennis life. But to succeed, including three wins at Masters tournaments, is soon to add fame that is more sustainable than a quick-earned quarter-million at the Laver Cup. That's why in August Zverev brought Lendl into the team, which he preferred to Boris Becker, also a confidant of his family. Since then, the two have been puzzling and adjusting in the frontiers of elite sports, on the mental side, on technical finesse, in order to create the last hurdles on the big occasions. And because both Zverev and Lendl seem like two protagonists who never quite look at the charts, they radiate something mysterious. Their cooperation is the most exciting project in the world, in which everyone agrees.

In the Grand Slams Zverev wants to do better, the quarter-finals is too little

A "process that takes time and takes time," Zverev says, indirectly identifying the biggest challenge that may personally affect him: he has to tame his impatience. And be open to change. In any case, the interesting thing will be how much Lendl admits to Zverev. He probably will not stuff sawdust into his pocket, and German shepherd dogs have not done the same to him, who Lendl loves so much. But on the pitch, Zverev hinted, there are already the first adaptations. "I'm looking more variable," he said after starting with a 7: 6, 7: 6 win against Croatian Marin Cilic in the ATP Finals. The idea behind it is typical of Lendl: always unpredictable. Not just ball up and up. As Cilic caught up in the tie-break of the first set and it was only 5: 6, Zverev lured him with a one-handed backhand stop to the net – then he passed him dry with the two-handed backhand. Set bear trap, which Grizzly attract, snapping shut – that was the cunning Lendl, the trapper. And be more disciplined with yourself. To the Scot Murray, Lendl had expelled the whining, a trait that is similar to Zverev.

Lendl will have known what he's getting into. Zverev is impulsive, likes to test frame hardness of thugs, scolds, quarrels. Zverev, though he denies it, is not the very best loser, especially not if he loses to someone he thinks is bad. After all, that's exactly where Lendl will start: he has to crawl into Zverev's head and steel him there. And not only for first and second round matches. For the later stages of a tournament, when the opponents get harder. The ATP Finals are in this sense an ideal test balloon in real time: because in the imposing O2 Arena anyway only an elitist circle participates. Each game is a small finale. In every match he needs bear traps.

Zverev's chances are good, even if he had shoulder problems and how everyone feels the long season. Dubai, the Maldives, the temptation of off season already attracts. As you know, Zverev is even more resistant to two sets of wins than the best-of-five Grand Slams format. And he's in shape, at least he made a good impression against Cilic. Although he was 2: 5 back, but then he showed a quality: One can not be sure despite leadership against him.

Zverev's goal is actually medium-term nature: He wants to do better in the Grand Slams, a quarter-final is too little for a like him yet. But London offered the chance to achieve the biggest success of his career right now. That's also a temptation. This Wednesday he meets the revived Novak Djokovic. Lendl, Zverev's mastermind, of course sits in the pits. And as always, you can not read anything on his face. Nothing.

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