Boris Becker calls Alexander Zverev a ‘superstar’ – and tennis should listen
Not every comment made by Becker hits the mark but he is perfectly qualified to judge the progress of his fellow German, who came of age by winning the ATP Finals.
Of all the praise heaped on Alexander Zverev after his rare double over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic to win the ATP Finals, the comments of Boris Becker stand out as the most worthwhile, and not only for the obvious reasons.
Not every call made by Becker hits the mark – and he has a long list of career and life mistakes – but that, paradoxically, makes him perfectly qualified to judge the progress of his fellow German wunderkind.
Becker, who announced his arrival so outrageously by winning Wimbledon in 1985 as a freckled, ginger ball of teenage energy, perhaps subconsciously recognized something of himself in Zverev when he described him as: “A gentlemen with a sense of humor, who can talk and laugh about himself. A star has arrived. The world has seen a new superstar in tennis.”
Becker, who hobbles on legs that have taken a pounding and looks older than his 50 years, has not always been inclined to laugh at himself, given his wrangles with wives, girlfriends and the tax man, and his star on the court roared, flickered and fizzed until he retired in 1999, the owner of six grand slams and a bucket load of other titles.
As for Zverev, the 21-year-old treated spectators at the O2 Arena in London to a close-up, day-by-day insight into his character and potential as he smiled, grimaced, joked, cavilled and ultimately prevailed to have the best weekend of his life, lifting the trophy by beating a pair of legends with a mixture of power and fearlessness.
Boris Becker watches on during the group match between Zverev and Djokovic in London last week. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Saturday was good and bad. He beat a fading Federer but incurred the wrath of the boorish wing of the Swiss’s faithful when, correctly, he halted play in mid-exchange because a ball boy had dropped a ball in his line of vision, behind Federer. And then he beat him, the greater crime.
Zverev – a genial and intelligent young man whose self-belief can be misinterpreted as arrogance – was visibly upset, and was rescued in a memorable TV interview by the kind intervention of Annabel Croft, who chided the fans for their behavior.
Sunday, though, was the perfect ending to a week in which he had wobbled badly against the dominant Djokovic in the group stage.
He got his revenge by listening to the best advice he will ever get – from his new and possibly long-term coach, Ivan Lendl: attack.
It is the same advice Lendl gave Andy Murray to help win three majors. It is the same advice Becker gave Djokovic to help him win six of his 14 majors.
As simple a mantra as it is, it works – and that should be Zverev’s biggest prize from the end-of-season tournament.
Becker saw other qualities in Zverev but a willingness to listen was near the top of his list.
“I can sense Lendl’s signature mentally in him as he is taking on these big matches,” Becker said. “You won’t win by waiting for an opponent to make a mistake. Djokovic and Federer are too big stars to do that.
He needs to understand the only way forward is doing right thing, even though you don’t win every point, but come forward. It’s the right step to take.”
There was something else, though. “It’s not only the fact he has beaten the world No 1 and Roger Federer, it’s the way he carries himself. He understands the responsibility that title has and he has done a great job with it.”
If that quality stays with Zverev when his game inevitably dips, when the crowd are not always with him, when someone sorts out the weaknesses he is still working on – his cramped forehand, his occasional impetuosity – he has a great shot to emulate the deeds of his country’s best male player.
And he would do well to avoid the mistakes Becker has made.