Mischa Zverev says Novak Djokovic is “from another world” as his hunger for success drives him to continually better himself.
The world No.1 arrives at the French Open on the back of victory at the Italian Open, having endured a frustrating period prior to his triumph in Rome.
Defeats in the semi-final of the Madrid Open and final of the Serbia Open were preceded by a nightmare time at the Monte Carlo Masters, where the 34-year-old crashed out in the last-32 at the hands of Alejandro Davidovich Fokina.
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Zverev - who is the older brother of world No.3 Alexander - told Eurosport Germany's tennis podcast Das Gelbe vom Ball, "In Monte Carlo he really didn't play well and lost early. Before the tournament he had practiced with Sascha (Alexander), he really looked slower than usual. His strokes were also not so well placed.”
“Normally you don't see the top players on the venue when they have lost. But he was on the grounds one or two days later - on the last court at the back - practicing there and you could see, okay, he is hungry, he really wants to improve his game. He doesn't care if there are other spectators, if the quarter-finals or semi-finals are on. He is not part of it. It didn't matter to him at all. He had one goal in mind, he had to improve”, he said.
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Zverev finds Djokovic’s mindset intriguing, saying, “He really is a player who knows his body and his game inside out like no other.”
He's like from another world.
Former German player Barbara Rittner has watched with interest as Djokovic fought his way back to the top of the rankings, telling Eurosport, “He is back in shape, he has shown that impressively. But above all he is fresh. He hasn't played as much as he has in years - and that's how he looked last week. Agile as ever, but just fresh in the head.”
“He's having fun and he's feeling that recognition and appreciation again. 1000 victories is an achievement in itself. His mental strength, especially in these best-of-five matches, is already impressive, and that coupled with his current freshness due to relatively few matches makes him particularly dangerous”, she said.
The danger Rittner talks of will be very much in the consciousness of those trying to stop him at the French Open at Roland-Garros, including Mischa’s brother and teenage sensation Carlos Alcaraz.
The older Zverev sibling feels the Spanish teenager has qualities resembling one of his compatriots, saying, “As a person he is almost a copy of Juan Carlos Ferrero. He used to be number one in the world, won a Grand Slam and is so down to earth, so reserved, sometimes shy, very respectful. I think Alcaraz is the same. He plays incredibly good tennis. His tennis is interesting because he tries to make the point himself. He tries to set up the rally in such a way that he either plays a winner, plays a stop or pulls something else out of his sleeve. That is very, very interesting.”
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Zverev admits he will be interested to see if Alcaraz is able to keep pace with the top players with his style of play, saying, “it's very risky when you try to actively win every best-of-five match for a fortnight. That demands a lot of energy and I'm curious to see whether he has the necessary consistency for that or whether he will lack it. Of course, Djokovic and Nadal are highly superior to him in that respect."
Speaking of Nadal, the all-time Grand Slam record holder’s struggle for fitness has continued ahead of the French Open. However, defiantly as ever, the Spaniard showed so signs of discomfort as he practiced at Roland-Garros.
However, Zverev thinks Nadal’s amazing career is coming to an end, saying, “you can be positive and have strength and energy in your head. But now first the ribs, then the foot - and then sometimes he's also tired or at least looks tired on the pitch. There are just too many problems that come up too often. It's like a car that has a trouble every few kilometres. I have such a mixed feeling about Rafa this year. Either he will charm us as always with his clay court tennis in Paris or we will see a Rafa this year who is really a bit more tired than usual. And that would be a sad thing."
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With a record 13 French Open titles to his name, Nadal will not want to go out with a whimper in Paris, and Rittner thinks he will do everything in his power to not let injury stand in his way.
“Everyone knows how demoralising physical pain is. If anyone can handle it, it's Rafael Nadal. He has shown repeatedly how impressively he can come back after injury breaks. But I have the feeling it's a bit different now - the way he expresses himself, with this scepticism. At some point there's also the question: 'When does the pain become so great that it overrides the motivation I still have?' Nonetheless, I always think fondly of that glorious final in Melbourne and how much joy he gave us there. Of course, everyone wonders, can he get that out of himself again in Paris - in his very own tournament?", she said.
Someone else whose 2022 campaign has been blighted by injury is Dominic Thiem. The Austrian is still yet to win a match this season, most recently going down in straight sets to Marco Cecchinato at the Geneva Open.
A wrist injury has been the cause of Thiem’s discomfort, and Zverev thinks the 28-year-old is playing tentative tennis out of worry, saying, “When I see him play, I always have a little bit of a feeling that he could theoretically push through more - whether that's with the forehand or backhand. I have the feeling that he used to hit even harder. Now I don't know if it's the wrist or just confidence. It's not easy to come back after such a long break and after such an injury.”
“Rafa and Roger managed to come back after an injury break and win a Grand Slam. But that is incredible. With Dominic, it's the more human way. After such an injury, you just need more time to come back. That's why I think he will be able to play better in Paris and win matches, but he just needs a few more weeks”, he said.
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