Becker: “Sascha Isn’t Satisfied Yet”
Alexander Zverev earned the biggest title of his career last month at The O2 in London, winning the prestigious Nitto ATP Finals. The last German to capture the season finale before Zverev was former World No. 1 Boris Becker, in 1995. Becker also triumphed at the event in 1988 and 1992.
ATPWorldTour.com caught up with Becker in a wide-ranging conversation about Zverev, including his victory in London to how he can improve and what the future may hold.
A month ago Sascha earned the biggest win of his career at the Nitto ATP Finals. Now that there’s been some time, how important of a breakthrough do you believe that was for him?
I think it was the biggest win of his career. He did win three [ATP World Tour] Masters 1000 titles before, but this one was bigger, especially beating Roger and Novak in the semi-finals and finals in straight sets. I thought that was the breakthrough that everyone was waiting for.
As you said, he had won Masters 1000 events before. So how key do you think this was compared to those wins?
He’s been touted by most of the experts as a future No. 1 and playing like it. He played the past two years, apart from the Grand Slams [at a high level]. You wait as a young player to take the next step at the biggest of tournaments and at the Grand Slams, unfortunately, he hasn’t made a semi-final yet. But I think the way he performed throughout the whole week against the very best in tennis, looked to be very promising for 2019.
It starts with yourself. If you gain a bit of confidence, if you start beating the best tennis players in the world day after day, you deep down start to believe that you really belong there. That’s why I think it was a big breakthrough.
Speaking of the experts touting him as a future World No. 1, if you do, why do you believe he can be the best player in the world?
First of all, it’s not so easy to achieve. The No. 1 spot is busy, it’s taken right now by Novak, but Rafa had it for most of the year and even Roger was No. 1 for a couple of weeks, so you’re talking about three of the greatest players of all time. Reaching No. 1 for anybody else is very difficult. Plus, he’s surrounded by some of his generation, the likes of Tsitsipas, Khachanov and Shapovalov. They are right behind him and I think it’s just a very difficult feat to do right now in tennis, to overtake everybody, because it’s such a crowded time to play.
How difficult is it to deal with the pressure of people touting you as a possible future No. 1?
Pressure is sometimes overrated and sometimes underrated. I think if Sascha couldn’t cope with the pressure, he wouldn’t be consistently now, the past two years, in the Top 5 [of the ATP Rankings]. So I think pressure is the least of his problems. I think it’s the quality of players. To play Rafa on clay, Novak on hard and Roger on everything else, it’s just very, very difficult. If you can’t handle the pressure, then ultimately you should find another job. But it’s really the quality of the opposition that would be the biggest problem for him and everybody else.
Do you remember the first time you met Sascha or saw him play?
It was funny because when [Zverev’s brother] Mischa was in his early 20s, I supported him with the German Federation. I talked to his father, his mother and Mischa and Mischa said, ‘Yeah, I’m good and everything. But my brother will be much better.’
Little Sascha was about 10 years old, a skinny toothpick. I said, ‘Hopefully you’re right.’ And obviously 10 years later, they were right. He’s come a long way, and he’s not so skinny anymore.
What do you think he’s improved the most over these past few years that has allowed him to consistently stay at this level?
I think it’s his belief and his quality. He understands now that he belongs in the Top 5. He shows a remarkable consistency for someone so young. It’s one thing playing good one tournament, six months a year. It’s far more difficult to come back and defend it.
Everyone knows how you’re playing now, the competition obviously. The locker room never sleeps. So for him to come back this year and confirm his quality, I think it’s his biggest achievement. Of course he’s physically stronger now, the groundstrokes are better, but I think ultimately it’s down to your own confidence and the belief that you belong.
To be in the Top 5, you typically won’t have a true weakness. But do you think there’s a shot or a quality in his game he needs to improve significantly to take another step forward?
I think there’s a big difference [between] consistently playing Top 5 or Top 10. It’s a different quality. So I would emphasise that he’s a Top 5 player. He’s a student of the game. For him to ask Ivan Lendl to improve his quality and performances speaks volumes. He could have said he’s happy with his father and his surroundings, he’s doing well. But no, he wants to be better, he wants to get better. Hiring Ivan, he’s one of the best coaches in the game today, and when their partnership started in September, I was very happy. I knew right away that Sascha isn’t satisfied yet. He wants to get to the very top. I think with Ivan on his side, he can achieve that dream.
Is there something in particular Ivan can bring to his game?
I think the understanding of when to do what. There is one thing to practise the right away, but it’s another thing to prepare to play on the morning of a semi-final, of a final against the very best. It’s strategy, it’s tactics, it’s mindset, it’s attitude and that has nothing to do with any strokes… to understand when to do what against whom. When you coach players, most of them are happy to be in the semi-finals, and they start to relax a little bit and the tournament’s already good. When Ivan is on your side, once you’re in the semi-finals, the tournament has really just started.
Of course you’ve spoken to Sascha, so what’s the biggest lesson you’ve tried to impart to him?
Being the head of German tennis, I’ve tried to mentor him for the past two years. As I said to his brother and his family — I’m very close to him — and we often speak about tennis and I give him my thoughts, but he’s like a sponge. He wants to know, he wants to talk, he wants to practise, and I think that’s the most important thing, is that he understands that there are still a lot of things he needs to do overall.
Saying he’s a sponge and a student of the game, is that something that’s always been a part of him?
I have known him a couple years now, and he has this belief and confidence that, without being arrogant or without carrying his nose too high, he feels he’s got something in him that’s special, and I think that’s the most interesting thing that I’ve found about him, that he really believes and he feels that he’s one of the best players in the world and he wants to get to the very top.
What do you think the biggest misconception about Sascha or his game is?
He’s very talkative and I’m talking from a German point of view. He gives wonderful interviews in English, you may remember his winner’s speech after he won at The O2. He was funny, and he made fun of himself and his friends. Sometimes in Germany he doesn’t come across that way. Some of the German media thinks he’s a bit arrogant and he doesn’t care, and he’s a bit cocky and all of that, and there’s nothing further from the truth. I wish he would come across in German the way he does in English.
How important do you think he can be for German tennis on the whole?
He’s now a superstar. Together with Angie Kerber, he can really put tennis back on the map in Germany. Both have gained millions of new fans in the past two years and they want to see him do well.
We’ve been blessed with a couple of good players in the past and some of the other players like Tommy Haas, Rainer Schuettler and others up to Philipp Kohlschreiber, they’re all very good, but I think Sascha is special. I just hope that he can continue to play great, continue to be proud of his country. It goes a long way. He’s only 21 years, so hopefully this thing will go for a long, long time.