Just a couple of days ago, Alexander Zverev left Brisbane feeling pretty good about things.
He’d won two singles points to lead Germany to its first World Group Davis Cup victory in four years. He’d spent his evenings enthusiastically playing cards with Boris Becker and company at the team hotel. And he’d completed a charm offensive that included planting a mid-match kiss on the cheek of a starstruck ballgirl.
It was a different story for a despondent Nick Kyrgios. He’d departed Brisbane with yet another injury – this one to his right arm, having nobbled him during Sunday’s second career loss to Zverev.
Indeed, the fifth instalment of what promises to be a long and fascinating rivalry between two of the sport’s great young talents was a disappointing anti-climax.
Which is not to suggest the world No.5 did not play exceptionally well. And if Zverev is the higher ranked of the pair, by nine places, and almost exactly two years younger, he is also winning the health game.
Kyrgios has already endured a string of physical setbacks; this one, he said, could not have come at a worse time. “It’s tough to go out there and not be able to put in your best performance. It just sucks,’’ he said. “I had my eye on this Davis Cup tie throughout the whole Aussie summer, even when I was here in Brisbane I was waiting to come here and play and it just leaves a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth after the Aussie summer I had. I can’t really be too happy with the way I played or the result today at all.’’
Even if there is a large asterisk beside this latest result, Kyrgios now leads 3-2 the head-to-head between two friendly rivals with very different games and personalities.
The Australian has the superior serve – superior, in fact, to almost all players – and bigger forehand, while Zverev’s marvellous backhand is the German’s best shot. In terms of professionalism, even Kyrgios acknowledges he is in deficit there. For now.
When the format is best-of-three-sets, 20-year-old Zverev has already claimed two Masters 1000 titles, while Kyrgios is a one-time finalist. But, at Grand Slam level, Kyrgios reached two quarterfinals (Wimbledon 2014, Australian Open 2015) while Zverev’s best result is his 2017 appearance in the Wimbledon fourth round.
Former Australian great Ken Rosewall watched both men on Pat Rafter Arena on Friday. He declared of Zverev: “He’s got a lot of natural ability and I think his game is suited to the way tennis is played so much from the back of the court these days. Every shot comes easy to him. His forehand’s not as good, he’s liable to make a few more easier errors on his forehand than his backhand, and his backhand does seem to put him in position to win the points a little bit more quickly.’’
He then turned his attention to Kyrgios. “He’s got that flair both backhand and forehand – he’s got more natural flair with his game than most of the other players playing, and that works for him most of the time, along with his confidence in his serve, which is where he gets a lot of his cheap points. I think Nick is an exciting player to watch when he’s got his mind on the game and wants to win.’’
Another contrast comes in their public personas. At Thursday’s Davis Cup draw, for example, Kyrgios joked around with his teammates when the cameras were off, or distant, but otherwise withdrew as he often does. Zverev, meanwhile, was expansive and relaxed, chatting about topics that included how impressed he had been by his pal Nick in recent times. “Very. He seems very motivated to play, he seems like he’s changed a little bit, to be honest,’’ said Zverev.
“Obviously the (title) win in Brisbane was huge for him, winning his first tournament in Australia was something very special I think for him. Same, like when I won Munich for me it was very special winning my first I Germany.’’
The respective national No.1s had earlier taken part in the traditional exchange of gifts on a makeshift stage near the Brisbane River, and as Zverev swapped his wrapped offering for whatever was contained in the brown paper bags handed over by the Australians, he could be heard to tell Kyrgios with a laugh that he had no idea what was inside, but just that he hoped his Aussie rival enjoyed it.
Just as tennis, indeed, has much to like about the prospect of watching two of these once #NextGen guys becoming #NowGen.
Zverev was the first of his young cohort to arrive at the single-digit pointy end of the rankings, but Kyrgios is close to a career-high mark after a summer to remember – even if, unfortunately, it was a Davis Cup Sunday he would rather forget.
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