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Alexander Zverev Is Not Like the Next Big Things Who Came Before Him

Men’s tennis is as static as it’s ever been. Yet during a year in which Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal have thrived, a young player has emerged who—entering the U.S. Open—finally seems ready to challenge them.

Alexander Zverev playing tennis Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Alexander Zverev serves, he tosses the ball high into the air. It feels as if it floats forever, soaring past the clouds and cresting alongside the stars, before finally falling back toward the baseline. As the ball plummets to earth, Zverev stretches his left arm longingly in its direction and begins to bend his knees. His right leg, planted roughly a meter behind his left, drags along the ground until his feet tap together. His racket arm traces a winding semicircle through the air from a point in front of his waist to a spot behind his head. Then he is airborne, rising to meet the ball. His racket snaps forward, sending the ball down with a crack and a hiss. His serve kicks sharply, almost supernaturally, out of the box. The German’s feet eventually return to the ground. He is ready to rally.

It’s uncommon for the tallest tennis players to look relaxed as they tread the baseline. Their steps are typically heavy and plodding, their knees creaking as points yo-yo across the court. The big man, in most cases, does not want to rally; he wants to crack the big serve, to hammer a putaway forehand, and to pray for good fortune in the return game. Zverev stands 6.5 feet tall, but he moves across the court with an ease and willingness usually reserved for those with much smaller frames.

Where other bigs lumber and labor about the court, he seems unburdened, gliding from side to side, clocking high forehands and crouching until his knees nearly scrape the concrete to whip low backhands. Zverev is capable and malleable, positionless in a way that the best basketball players increasingly are. He’s fiery, but only when appropriate. He’s measured, like an old champion. With the 2017 U.S. Open beginning next week, this is a happy situation for Zverev. He’s 20 years old.

Alexander Zverev Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

It has been about 15 years since tennis has had a boy king, as the days of the child star seem to be a relic of the past. Thirty has become the new 20; 20 the new 10. Of the ATP’s top 50 players, only eight are under 25. There isn’t a single teenager among the group.

Men’s tennis has aged significantly over the last two decades. In March 1997, the average age for a top-10 player was 24. Today, the mean age of the top 10 is 28. The ATP, which has seen the most dominant era in the sport’s history make tournaments as predictable as they’ve ever been, has responded by launching its NextGen campaign, a promotion meant to give traction to the next wave of men’s tennis players. The campaign is centered around a 21-and-under Masters event that will be held for the first time this winter. The tournament will be similar to the World Tour Finals; the top seven qualifying players and a wild card (a spot that will probably be awarded to the best young Italian player, since the tournament will be held in Milan) will compete in a year-end round-robin tournament that will offer no ranking points, but a substantial cash prize.

The painfully obvious idea behind the NextGen campaign, the “Race to Milan,” and the seemingly outsize hype around young players ranked outside of the top 100 is that the trajectory of the tour has been static for so long that the ATP needs to assure fans that something else—whether new superstars, rivalries, or story lines—is, in fact, going to materialize. The endless twilight of the top men’s players has created a heightened level of anxiety among the sport’s officials and fans about where tennis is going beyond this golden generation.

Zverev, currently ranked sixth in the world, is the youngest player in the top 50. He’s wire thin, Jack Skellington in neon Adidas garb. His blond mane is kept out of his eyes by a Roger Federer–esque bandana. For everything his monstrous size does to obscure his age, he is betrayed by the staccato scruff that sprouts from only his chin. He’s won five titles this year, as many as Federer and more than any other man on tour, including one in Rome during the clay swing and another on the hard courts of the Canadian Open two weeks ago. In the final of the latter tournament, he handily dispatched a possibly injury-hobbled Federer in two sets, 6-3, 6-4, in the process accomplishing something that no one outside the Big Four has done in a decade: win two Masters events in the same year.

Heading into the U.S. Open, the German is a popular dark-horse pick to win the title. Perhaps, at this point, he’s earned the right to be called simply a contender. Either way, he’s not yet a star.

The tennis world buzzes about Nick Kyrgios, the 22-year-old Australian currently ranked 18th in the world, because he is supremely gifted and also because of the dizzying dissonance between his abilities and his willingness to try. Kyrgios is the flashiest, most unpredictable player on tour, and he’s shouldered the burden of being labeled the Next Big Thing since he upset Rafa Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014 as a 19-year-old wild card. Kyrgios is a star now, even before winning a title of significance, because the qualities that hinder him in competition make for compelling writing. Zverev, on the other hand, fails to make headlines because he plays the smart shots, says the right things. He is not a story without competitive success, though he might not need to be.

Zverev doesn’t wield visually freakish gifts like Kyrgios does. He benefits from an ability to do everything that has already been proved to work on tour: move along the baseline, play defense, and hit a winner when the margins are high. Of course, these aren’t things that players of Zverev’s height can usually do. His mixture of power and movement is unique.

Alexander Zverev Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

If you’re watching a Zverev match on television, it’s likely that you’ll hear a commentator use the phrase “future no. 1,” a spacy, noncommittal title that doesn’t mean anything because of the era in which Zverev exists. To say that a player today is a future no. 1 is the equivalent of throwing one’s hands in the air while purporting to make a prediction. Assigning rankings in a future hierarchy feels like a fool’s errand, particularly now, because the future of tennis has never seemed more formless and far away than it does in 2017.

The present state of the tour goes down the gullet like empty calories: sweetly on the way in, but regretfully after that. In the competitive absence of ATP’s two most recent figureheads (Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have combined to win one title this season), the association has played the hits. Nadal, with lances deep in his shoulders, still capably chases the matador’s cape. For the first time in years, he is ranked atop the world. Federer, though he pulled out of last week’s Cincinnati Masters with a back injury, is living his best life, conducting an impromptu performance of his magnum opus. Before the year is over, he will likely be ranked in the top two. The pair have combined to win seven of the year’s 10 tournaments of note. This season has been entirely different from the one that preceded it, yet we have no clearer picture of the direction in which the game is headed.

There is no tension on the tour, no perception that anything shiny and grand is at stake. The records have been smashed to pieces. The Big Four are on a joyride, wandering through an amusement park of their own design. Dominance is meaningless without an understanding of its limits. And while champions can be great on their own, the sport thrives when it presents a usurper—a figure who gives the audience an appreciation of impermanence, of scale.

The group of players currently in their mid-to-late 20s has repeatedly failed to play this role, and so we’ve gone a decade in search of a suitable form of measurement. Enter Zverev, who is bending the only norms that men’s tennis has left: those about young players and big ones. His boyish looks bring expectations of impatience, a hot temper, and a thirst for an early, whistling winner. His methodical game, his willingness to stand against the ropes and wait for the proper opportunity to throw a haymaker, and his (mostly) steady demeanor are surprising. Perhaps no prior challenger could beat the Big Four at their game because it was time to start playing a new one, where size and youth don’t imply sloth and fragility.

The field in Flushing Meadows will be as wide open as that of any tournament in recent history. Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, who contested last year’s final, have already withdrawn. Murray, who hasn’t played since Wimbledon, will enter the Open with doubts. Federer likely won’t maintain the world-beating level he showed at Wimbledon. Of all the players seeded ahead of Zverev, only Nadal, who typically struggles on the quick North American hard courts, is healthy (or at least as healthy as he will ever be at this point in his career). The list of usual spoilers is short as well. Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic, who knocked Zverev out of Wimbledon in five sets, will also miss the tournament.

When Zverev beat Federer to win the title in Montreal a few weeks ago, he grinned and pulled off his headband, as his opponent often does after a victory. He walked to the net and embraced the Swiss before meandering over to the umpire’s chair. It wasn’t long before he revealed his excitement: He reached his arm out to shake the umpire’s hand first, usually the role of the loser, before quickly retracting it and waiting for Federer. Then he walked back toward the court and pumped his arms in the air, looking carefully elated—like he could see into the future and knew that he’d be there again.