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Roger Federer Is Back, But The Youngsters Are Coming For Him

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Lay out all the usual lame disclaimers: it’s Roger Federer’s first tournament back in the game since he hurt his knee giving his kids a bath and decided to take the whole rest of the season off. It’ll take him a while to get back to form, even his late-career, step-slower form. And the Hopman Cup is just a light, fun international team tournament with no impact on ATP rankings, so there’s no reason to tweak something playing too hard, just get warm and loose for the upcoming Australian Open. Fine. It’s still hard to watch his match against Alexander Zverev and not be struck by the symbolism: this looks a lot like a fading great ceding his place to the game’s next major talent, if you can forgive the tidy narrative. It was also just a good-ass tennis match.

19-year-old Alexander—not to be confused with his less transcendent, older brother Mischa, also on the tour—is the consensus smart-money pick to be the next big thing in the men’s field. You could make a case for other young players: Lucas Pouille presents a pretty all-court game, even if he lacks any one characteristic weapon; Nick Kyrgios has the best unteachable, bone-deep feel for how to make a tennis ball do what he wants, but he’s also, uh, distracted. But the unusually mobile, 6-foot-6 Zverev seemed the most likely to crack the top 10 and stay there for a while, and here he is beating Roger Federer, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6. Not a washed, limping Fed, but a well-rested, clean-striking one, whose play betrayed no obvious weaknesses despite his long hiatus from the game. Watch his slick movement and point construction at 8:41 here if you need any convincing that’s he’s mostly his old self; watch that flick of a backhand winner.

And the German teen still beat that guy. What’s most compelling about Zverev’s hitting is its relentless, constant depth. Like any pro of that size, he can really slug it, and he’s always hitting right through the court, making his opponent scramble, even a fleet-footed Fed, who watched several winners fly right by him just paces away. Zverev manages that depth not just when the ball’s sitting up in his ideal strike zone, but also from from all kinds of compromised positions, whether on the run, off his back foot, or scraping up a low ball. His two-hander is a crisp, gorgeous thing that he can cut at a severe angle, or guide down the line into the narrowest of pockets:


It’s only two weeks until we get to see how far Zverev can advance in the year’s first Grand Slam, and it’d be a minor surprise if he ended 2017 outside the top 12 or so. Along with all the other stans, I’m grateful for the return of Federer, but at the risk of sacrilege, there may be more compelling things to watch on court this year. Even if he’s doing his best to convince you otherwise.

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