Alexander Zverev has a champion’s impatience as Wimbledon looms

Prodigies in any sport have an unmistakable gunslinger’s swagger. They stand tall, talk with dead-eye certainty and shoot straight. If Alexander Zverev were never to make it as a tennis player he could look back at his highlights reel and see a lot of Billy the Kid in his demeanour.

“Where you from, buddy?” Zverev asked Jonathan Pinfield, the journalist who brought levity and plain-language insight to press conferences at Roland Garros this year. It was not a threat, even if the 21-year-old sounded young-dude smart-arse. As the tall, blond German worked his way through the draw in a succession of tough five-setters before bailing out, exhausted, in the quarter-finals, where Dominic Thiem had his number in three sets, he revealed a lighter side, and player and journalist settled down to some unusual bonding.

Told Pinfield was from Yorkshire, Zverev said: “If I ever make a tournament there, I’m coming just because of that accent. Love it. I didn’t understand a word you’re saying but it’s not important.”

Maybe not that important to a millionaire athlete on the threshold of what could be an outstanding career – but he meant no harm. It is his confident young way. People around him – including Jez Green, Andy Murray’s long-time conditioner until a couple of years ago – have witnessed a champion’s impatience in Zverev, even though his junior career was not as outstanding as those of some peers. He wanted to get on with the business of winning big titles on the big Tour. He respected his fellow young Turks but he also wanted to leave them behind as quickly as he could.

Green’s part in the process has been pivotal. He has had to manage the physical development of a lean young player who was sprouting like a mighty rose but who also needed the stability of a sound muscle base as well as strong levers allied to good technique.

There are some who wonder still about Zverev’s occasionally awkward hitting posture – shooting from the hip, as it were, rather than training his sights coldly on his target. He can still find himself out of position and off-balance when hitting from places not optimal to the best strike of the ball off the ground. That, however, is coming together. With every match he is looking the part. As the fourth seed at Wimbledon, behind Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Marin Cilic, he knows he is a target. He plays the Australian James Duckworth in the first round.

Wimbledon 2018: men’s singles draw

Roger Federer (1) v Dusan Lajovic
Lukas Lacko v Benjamin Bonzi
Ivo Karlovic v Mikhail Youzhny
Jan-Lennard Struff v Leonardo Mayer (32) 
Adrian Mannarino (22) v Christian Garin
Ryan Harrison v Roberto Carballes Baena
Guillermo García-López v Gastao Elias
Daniil Medvedev v Borna Coric (16) 
Sam Querrey (11) v Jordan Thompson
Sergiy Stakhovsky v João Sousa
Laslo Djere  v Paolo Lorenzi
Gaël Monfils v Richard Gasquet (23) 
Philipp Kohlschreiber (25) v Evgeny Donskoy
Gilles Muller v Michael Mmoh
John-Patrick Smith v Andreas Seppi
Norbert Gombos v Kevin Anderson (8)

Marin Cilic (3) v Yoshihito Nishioka
Jason Kubler v Guido Pella
Ricardas Berankis v MacKenzie McDonald
Nicolas Jarry v Filip Krajinovic (28) 
Lucas Pouille (17) v Denis Kudla
Peter Polansky v Dennis Novak
John Millman v Stefano Travaglia
Liam Broady v Milos Raonic (13) 
John Isner (9) v Yannick Maden
Steve Johnson v Ruben Bemelmans
Aljaz Bedene v Cameron Norrie
Radu Albotv Pablo Carreño-Busta (20)
Stefanos Tsitsipas (31)
v Grégoire Barrère
Malek Jaziri v Jared Donaldson
Yuki Bhambri v Thomas Fabbiano
Stan Wawrinka v Grigor Dimitrov (6)

Dominic Thiem (7) v Marcos Baghdatis
David Ferrer v Karen Khachanov
Julien Benneteau v Marton Fucsovics
Frances Tiafoe v Fernando Verdasco (30) 
Kyle Edmund (21) v Alex Bolt
Yuichi Sugita v Bradley Klahn
Guido Andreozzi v Horacio Zeballos
Tennys Sandgren v Novak Djokovic (12) 
Nick Kyrgios (15) v Denis Istomin
Marius Copil v Robin Haase
Bernard Tomic v Hubert Hurkacz
Christian Harrison v Kei Nishikori (24)
Damir Dzumhur (27) v Maximilian Marterer
Ernests Gulbis v Jay Clarke
Lorenzo Sonego v Taylor Harry Fritz
James Duckworth v Alexander Zverev (4)

Juan Martín Del Potro (5) v Peter Gojowczyk
Feliciano López v Federico Delbonis
Benoît Paire v Andy Murray 
Jeremy Chardy v Denis Shapovalov (26)
Jack Sock (18)
v Matteo Berrettini
Gilles Simon v Nikoloz Basilashvili
Albert Ramos-Viñolas v Stephane Robert
Matthew Ebden v David Goffin (10)
Diego Schwartzman (14)
v Mirza Basic
Jiri Vesely v Florian Mayer
Pablo Cuevas v Alexandr Dolgopolov
Taro Daniel  v Fabio Fognini (19)
Marco Cecchinato (29)
v Alex De Minaur
Pierre-Hugues Herbert  v Mischa Zverev
Vasek Pospisil v Mikhail Kukushkin
Dudi Sela v Rafael Nadal (2)

Seeds in bold
British players in italics

Photograph: Tom Jenkins

Zverev, strictly, is an Alex Jr. His father, who played to a decent level, reached a career high 175 and represented the Soviet Union in Davis Cup, is now listed as Sr. But his youngest son does not need the defining suffix. Everyone knows who he is – just as Floyd Mayweather Jr really did not have to tell the boxing world he was the son of Floyd Sr, whom he surpassed in deed and notoriety. Zverev, whose older brother, Mischa, is as in awe of him as the rest of the Tour, is the third piece in the Zverev tennis machine but there can be no doubt who the fulcrum is.

They often travel as a unit, hitting, dining and talking together, pooling the genes handed down from Alexander and his wife, Irina, who is also a tennis coach. In 1991, the Zverevs moved to Germany, where Alexander was born and still has a home in Hamburg, although he has all the traits of an internationalist, having spent so much time following his American-based brother about on the circuit and living now in Monte Carlo. He speaks fluent Russian, German and English, with an American twang.

Zverev’s low-key exit at Roland Garros at the hands of the player who probably will challenge him most strongly for the world No 1 ranking once the ancien régime has crumbled (no date fixed, yet), surprised some and vindicated others. Thiem went on to lose the final against Nadal, a sentence akin to being granted the keys to Sing Sing, only to have them whipped away once inside.

But, just as Thiem has unthinking detractors on his case, so there were critics hounding Zverev. At the Rome Masters he had his cowboy hat on again when confronted with scatter-gun questions about his lack of previous success in Paris – and this after he had played Nadal in the final. He had won 14 clay matches in a row – and now he had lost to the best clay-courter of them all. After Nadal had beaten him 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 Zverev was asked how he would cope with the pressure of five-setters at the upcoming French Open – where he had failed to get out of qualifying on his first visit in 2015, lost to Thiem in the third round of the main draw the following year and in four sets to Fernando Verdasco in the first round in 2017. He smiled the sharpshooter’s smile and made it clear his history in Paris was not a problem for him. “I just lost the final. We’ll talk about Paris later. I have a media day there. I think you’ll be there, as well.”

It was becoming increasingly obvious that to take Zverev on was to expect some return fire. He was not going to be anybody’s easy target. He had an ally in the legend who beat him, as well. Nadal suggested talk of Zverev being vulnerable at Roland Garros at 21 after three visits was ludicrous.

Zverev had a low-key hit at Boodles this week, beating the US Open semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta 6-4, 6-4. Inevitably, he was asked how far he thought he could go at Wimbledon. “I don’t have a set round that I’m happy with,” he said. “There’s a golden trophy at the end, which I may or may not win this year, but my goal is to win it at one point. This is what I’m working for, this is what I’m here for, this is why I do extra hours in the gym and extra hours on court.”

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