That a man called Zverev would make the headlines at this year’s Australian Open was no surprise. That the Zverev in question would be Mischa Zverev, the 29-year-old older brother of Sascha was a shock. That Mischa should outplay Andy Murray, the world No.1 to do it was yet another seismic shock that shook Melbourne Park to its foundations.
But outplay him Zverev did. He was quite simply brilliant for more than three and a half hours to win 7-5 5-7 6-2 6-4. Murray could not stop him, no matter how hard he tried. This was the stuff of dreams for Zverev.
“I don’t know how I did it,” Zverev said. “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.
“It means the world to me. And it means the world to me that my whole family is here. My box is full. So many people are here to support me. It’s amazing.”
The serve and volley we were all expecting – that is what Zverev does. It is what he has always done. No one else does it, but he does. Yet it was the way he was also solid from the baseline that came as a surprise. The forehand in particular was flummoxing the world No.1. There is almost no backswing on the shot which gave Murray no hint as to where it was going and as a result he was left rooted to the spot as the ball flew into spaces he could not possibly reach.
But when he was up at the net, there was no passing him. His serve was fearsome, his shot making was spectacular and his timing was immaculate. He took the ball early, he took it on the rise and he made magic out of nothing.
Murray is one of the best returners in the game but he could not put enough pressure on the German’s serve to make a difference. He loves to have a target to pass but he could not find an unguarded spot to place the ball. Zverev had everything covered.
The world No.1 did not have a hope of out-muscling his tormentor: he could not get enough racquet strings on the ball to do that. His second serve, the shot that improved so dramatically last year and shored up the last crack in his defences, deserted him. He only won 25 per cent of his second serve points in the first set – and lost the set – improved it to 45 per cent in the second set and then growled and grumbled and howled at his box as it slumped back to 25 per cent in the third.
Everything that Murray normally does so well – serve, return, invent, change tactics – did not work against Zverev. The only regulation Murray trait was the movement but so often that merely helped him accelerate after shadows. And the lob, that shot that Murray can land on a sixpence seemingly with his eyes shut, simply gave Zverev the chance to put away a smash winner. After a couple of sets, the Scot stopped trying with that one, screaming at himself: “No!!! No for the lob!!!”
He did a lot of talking on Sunday: he talked to himself, he talked to his box, he looked to be talking to his water bottle at one point. But no one could give any answers. No one could tell him how to play this old-school German who was playing the tennis of his life.
For the impartial observer, this match was a delight to see. The rallies, the touch, the way the points were constructed, the differences in game style, the similarities in passion and ambition – it was fascinating. But for those with a vested interest, it was terrifying. Murray’s team looking increasingly concerned, sitting tight-lipped and tense. For Zverev’s crew, they just wanted it to be over.
Mrs Zverev (she’s a tennis coach) will only watch her elder son’s matches because she gets so nervous; Mr Zverev, who coaches both Mischa and Sascha, usually only watches Sascha’s matches. And as her son inched his way through the sets, Mrs Z smiled broadly and gave him the thumbs up sign. But it would still be better if Mischa was home and hosed and into the quarterfinals.
What no one could believe was just how calm Zverev was. Sure, he got a little tight as the finish line approached, but only for a second or two. Murray did everything in his power to get some purchase. He drew on his 13 years of experience on the tour, his 11 Grand Slam finals, his three Grand Slam titles, but it was not enough. Zverev was not to be stopped.
Potentially, he could face Roget Federer next, if the Swiss maestro beats Kei Nishikori. That would be something for the German.
“I don’t know how I feel yet because everything is new to me,” he said. “It seems a bit unreal. Maybe playing Roger would be a dream to me because I always admired home growing up.”
But as Jim Courier pointed out to the stunned new star: this is not dream. This is real and Zverev is the man of the moment.