Roger Federer can’t play forever. Once he’s done, can men’s tennis still be beautiful and fun?

After Roger

Federer can’t play forever. Once he’s done, what will men’s tennis look like? And can it still be both beautiful and fun?

Published on August 24, 2017

Men’s tennis in 2017 has the makings of a weird fable, which might go something like this: Two conquerors warred for years, got hurt, maybe mortally, and slipped into their caskets. In 2016 both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal cut their seasons short to rehabilitate from injury — a left knee, a left wrist — and it looked like they might finally relinquish their chokehold on the game. But then, after months of silence and without warning, both awoke from their slumber, ravenous. They split a season’s worth of spoils between them. Both men vied for the Australian Open in a thunderclap of a final, but Federer wrenched it away after five sets. Nadal rampaged through the European clay season, going 24-1 and winning his favorite major, the French Open, a record-setting 10th time. A month later, Federer moved onto his own favorite surface, grass, and snatched a record eighth Wimbledon.

Tennis fans, in short, have been treated to a seductive, unanticipated narrative: Two household names, perhaps the two greatest players in history, returned from exile renewed, and defied Time to reclaim the game, at ages 36 and 31.

Fed and Rafa aren’t beloved just because they win. They are also savored for their styles. Rafa exploded all precedent with the ferocity of his topspin and the tenacity of his feet. Federer’s artistry was even richer in its variety. He entranced fans — most famously David Foster Wallace, who wrote an essay titled “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” — because of his comfort on any coordinates of the court, and on any court surface. He grazed broadly, winning points from the baseline, from the net, from the “no man’s land” in between. This versatility freshened a sport that had begun to be dominated by stout baseliners wary of wandering too far from home. Federer gave the casual fan something like a single-serving, balanced diet. You need your counterpunchers (defensive players who seize on the opponent’s slightest lapse), your serve-and-volleyers (players who deliver the ball and immediately surge to the net), your aggressive baseliners (Nadal) to brighten up matchups as a tournament slogs along. And you need the all-court player to kaleidoscopically blend them all. By polishing the all-court style, Federer produced plays that even a casual viewer could recognize as a welcome disruption of the order — of modern tennis tactics or of the universe, depending on your level of piety.

Viewed from another angle, though: Yes, Federer and Nadal and their fellow olds — including, at time of writing, the three other top male players in the world, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, all of whom are 30 and up — are great. But the idle mind starts to wonder what’s coming next. Who will inherit the men’s game when the old guys finally wear out? More pressing for the spectator: What will that game look like? And more specifically still: Will Federer’s style — the variegated and beautiful all-court approach — live on in the next generation?

Alexander Zverev: Ranked among the top 10 in the world, the German player doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional tall player. “Moving good was always quite a big thing, and I know for 6-foot-6 it was always going to be tough to do, so I put in hard work for that,” he says.

Alexander Zverev: Ranked among the top 10 in the world, the German player doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional tall player. “Moving good was always quite a big thing, and I know for 6-foot-6 it was always going to be tough to do, so I put in hard work for that,” he says.

It would be hard to tell, if you’re a catch-the-Grand-Slams-suitable-for-my-time-zone type of fan, but there are plenty of young talents blooming behind the present group of aging champions. Three of them were in Washington this month to play the Citi Open, an early stop on the summer hard-court season that ramps up to the U.S. Open, the year’s final major.

One of these emerging stars was the No. 1 seed at Citi: Dominic Thiem, a 23-year-old Austrian of steady, sedulous temperament and brutally hard groundstrokes. It was the first time in his career that he’d earned the top seed at a tournament of this magnitude. His touring schedule is as rigorous as his game plan: You can see him impose his whole will on every ball he hits. Yet at this juncture he’s seen as mainly a clay-court specialist. He was the only human being to defeat Nadal on clay this season and has made the French Open semifinals two years running. Whether he can take this success to other surfaces is the present question (one Nadal also faced early in his career, and quickly buried). Thiem seems eager to answer it: In Washington, he minces his first opponent in 63 minutes.

Next up: Nick Kyrgios, a slump-shouldered pyrotechnician. To be a fan of this 22-year-old Australian is to wander through maddening extremes. On the low end: Last October he blatantly threw a match while berating fans, earning himself $41,500 in fines and a three-week ban from the tour. On the high end: He beat Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all on his first try against each. The scolds of the sport have a lot of words for Kyrgios, some of them justified, but there is an irrefutable, flickering genius here, and you’d have to be obtuse to ignore it, and a little more obtuse not to enjoy it as pure entertainment. He arrives in Washington having retired from his past two matches with injury.

Finally there is Alexander Zverev, the anointed one — the player I’m here to witness. The 20-year-old German stands 6-foot-6 and makes you think about the churn of humanity that constantly forces wilder and wilder physical specimens to the top of sports. If you want a frame of reference, Zverev’s talent has the same flavor as Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 6-foot-11 Milwaukee Bucks phenom who does the burly things a big player can do and the nimble things a smaller player can do, without sacrificing anything for this dual citizenship.

The first time I spot Zverev in Washington, he is training hard; on a temperate D.C. day, his white tee is soaked nearly to translucence. Even in drills his gifts look imposing, his strokes deep enough to cause his new coach, former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, some small amount of stress to keep the rallies going. Zverev somehow looks half a foot taller than his listed height, in the way that the spindly always do. In idle moments he snatches a gold chain between his teeth, one of several he wears while he plays (two long, one short with a little round medallion). With watermelon-pink shorts, and a golden mop above a slightly glassy expression, he looks a bit like a seeker who went out in search of killer waves and washed up on hard court. But there is nothing beachy or lackadaisical about his approach to his craft.

The goal of the average big man might be to disrupt rhythm and win points as soon as possible after the serve, but Alexander Zverev never looks more at ease than when he’s settling into the groove of a rally.

By the end of the practice session, his entire family, who refer to him as Sascha, has poured onto the court. There are his parents, Alexander Sr., and Irina, both tennis standouts in the former Soviet Union. There’s older sibling Mischa Zverev, a lower-ranked player who, at the age of 30, has enjoyed a late-career resurgence in sync with his brother’s ascent. And there’s Lovik, a poodly dollop with dusky ringlets obscuring its eyes. Done with tennis for the day, Sascha removes his signature headband — it keeps the long locks out of his own eyes — and tries wrapping it around his dog’s head.

Both his parents, whom he calls Mama and Papa, became tennis instructors after immigrating to Germany, and they are architects of their sons’ games. During a practice session the next day between Sascha and Gael Monfils (the defending champion in D.C.), I watch Papa mindfully hover in the back of the court, racket in hand. Papa is a little rounder than he might have been in his early career but deceptively tennis-ready. At one point, Monfils crushes an overhead into the back-left corner of the court, where Papa happens to be standing. Despite the blistering pace, Papa deflects it back up, offering him another lob to crush; Monfils does so and Papa gamely deflects it back again; another smash and another retrieval; finally Monfils plops one into the net. In this narrowly defined skirmish, Papa has won, and he lets slip an ironic little fist pump and his very large son smiles. Sascha’s career seems to be in good hands, deft ones.

Papa has some of the best conceivable raw materials to work with. Most of the tallest players in tennis, particularly the Americans, tend to dine out on their serve and supplement that with a respectable forehand. The purest distillation of this you can find at the Citi Open is nearly 7-foot Reilly Opelka, a 19-year-old American whose serve flirts with 140 mph. During his first-round loss, he argues with an umpire, and the two men, one in lofted chair and the other standing on court, are effectively eye-to-eye.

But Zverev is a polymath relative to the traditional tall player. In particular, his backhand, the bane of many a big man, is his single finest stroke, as his coach Ferrero tells me, and Zverev credits its clean technique to his mother, Irina. His is a hitchless swoop, a feat of easy rolling power, and the ball lands deep in the court, bounding off its surface like a skipping stone on a pond. Between shots he skates along the baseline like a smaller peer. “Moving good was always quite a big thing, and I know for 6-foot-6 it was always going to be tough to do, so I put in hard work for that,” Zverev tells me. That he can crank a huge serve feels almost incidental to his talent. The goal of the average big man might be to disrupt rhythm and win points as soon as possible after the serve, but Zverev never looks more at ease than when he’s settling into the groove of a rally.

As they practice, Zverev and Monfils decide to play an informal set. It starts out casually; the players sometimes need to be reminded of the score. By the time the tiebreak comes around, maybe because some pride or competitive ember has flared up, the word “practice” has evaporated, and the court is now fringed thick with spectators. After some handsome rallies, Monfils nails a volley at too sweet an angle for a sprinting Zverev to salvage, and wins, 8-6. “This could be the final,” marvels one fan.

It won’t be. In the actual tournament Monfils is ousted in the second round by No. 200 Yuki Bhambri, a tectonic upset and the most momentous match of Bhambri’s career. Zverev, meanwhile, passes all his initial tests. By now he rarely goes down early in tournaments, and among tennis luminaries, his stock is already high. “He is as close to a lock as there can be to win multiple majors,” Patrick McEnroe, former pro, tennis analyst and brother of icon John, told the New York Times last year. Said Rafael Nadal last year: “He’s a clear possible future No. 1.” Roger Federer was more firm with his prophecy in June: “The future belongs to him.”

Dominic Thiem: The 23-year-old Austrian was seeded No. 1 at the Citi Open in Washington. As with other younger players, he seems averse to playing close to the net.

Dominic Thiem: The 23-year-old Austrian was seeded No. 1 at the Citi Open in Washington. As with other younger players, he seems averse to playing close to the net. (Top right photo: Pete Marovich/EPA)

Like a seedling or a Pokémon, Zverev’s game invites you to speculate what final form it might take. Given the breadth of his gifts — his wingspan, his groundstrokes, his serve, his movement and flexibility — it’s easy enough to envision him as the torchbearer of all-court grace: the player who preserves the free-roaming Federer legacy. Zverev tells me that, along with Monfils and his own brother, Roger is one of his favorite players to watch.

But Zverev is not quite that player, and has not shown huge advances toward becoming it. In this, he isn’t alone. For all of Federer’s dominance, he somewhat mystifyingly never inspired many copycats. The one anomaly is Grigor Dimitrov, a keen mimic in techniques and tactics, if not title haul. Lone Bulgarian aside, few newcomers have internalized Federer’s habit of constantly pressuring the opponent by creeping forward to the net.

If the plea for someone to adopt the all-court style is largely aesthetic — i.e., it’s fun and surprising to watch — it must be said that there’s also a more pragmatic argument: This style will help you win. And that argument springs from a fairly reputable source. The morning after winning Wimbledon, Federer — by his own admission a little hung over and perhaps feeling a little benevolent — told younger players how to beat him. Amid the champagne fog, his diagnosis was clear-eyed: You all hit well from the back of the court, but you need to get a little more friendly with the front of the court. “Almost every player I played here wouldn’t serve and volley,” Federer said of his Wimbledon opponents, speaking to the Guardian. “It’s frightening to me, to see that at this level. … I wish that we would see more coaches, more players taking chances up at the net, because good things do happen there.”

It’s a plea echoed by students of the game. “It is quite amusing that there’s not more players doing that,” Craig O’Shannessy, a tennis analyst who has worked for the men’s tour and privately consulted for individual players, tells me. “I think in general a lot of players don’t understand the simplicity of what Roger does. They don’t understand that coming forward works well for everyone, when you look at the win percentages.”

Statistical analysis has been slow to permeate tennis, relative to games like baseball or basketball; the racket sport has not yet been scoured for every possible market inefficiency, which might then be exploited. But O’Shannessy, who is slated to speak next year at Sloan — the industry’s chief sports analytics conference, held at MIT — thinks that Federer has hit upon one such inefficiency, and after due diligence, the analyst has found statistical support. He took the past 16 years of Wimbledon history — a span during which net-rushing has wavered in popularity, though Federer has kept at it throughout to varying degrees — and found that serve-and-volley points were won 68 percent of the time (and over 70 percent across the past four years). By comparison, per the men’s tour, players won all service points just under 66 percent of the time at Wimbledon over the past 16 years (and 66 percent over the past four years). In a game of fine margins, any strategy that offers even a small advantage is too precious to ignore.

But maybe this fruit can be tasted only by those with the sharpest volleying skills? Sure, this strategy might be doable for Federer, a guy whose racket handiwork is routinely likened to wizardry or surgery or saintly miracle, but for everyone else, including our rising talent, this won’t work, right? “Rubbish,” O’Shannessy says. “Look at the serves these guys have. … The returns off that are going to be weak. … You don’t need to have phenomenal volleys to say, ‘Okay, this is a good tactic for me.’ You can have a great serve, and adequate volleys, and a good strategy.” This would be more a matter of adjusting to a new comfort zone than picking up new tricks altogether. “These guys can volley, but it’s not their happy place. Their happy place is further back,” he says. He maintains that just a sprinkle of this strategy is enough to keep opponents guessing — you don’t need to barrel to the net ad nauseam; you just need them to think you might — and that a net-happy approach is viable not just on grass, historically the fastest court surface, but on all surfaces, which he believes, based on average rally length, have converged in terms of speed.

Dominic Thiem has a steady, sedulous temperament and brutally hard groundstrokes. Thus far, he’s seen as mainly a clay-court specialist.

Tactical benefit aside, an all-court style of play could potentially prolong a career. Here’s the underlying logic: To approach the net is to accelerate a tennis exchange to its conclusion, one way or another. Through his career, and this year with particular zeal, Federer perfected short, attacking points, and when he’s on his game you’ll rarely see him caught up in a drawn-out baseline affair.

Figuring out how to play shorter points could be particularly important for a tall player like Zverev. Neeru Jayanthi, director of tennis medicine at Emory University, acknowledges that there’s an additional layer of health risk for taller players, who have a higher center of mass and must still manipulate their large frames both high and low to meet the game’s contrasting demands. For best results, perhaps you have to triage not just how much you play but the way you play. “You only have so many ticks on the clock,” he says. “You have to control your volume of play in terms of match play and training, and you also have to control volume of play by length of points.”

Dominic Thiem, for one, would appear to have little interest in following this path. Often he reacts to the net the way Lovik might an electric fence; on clay especially, he is known for lurking as far from it as possible, granting himself plenty of time to set up for his dramatic, walloping groundstrokes. In Washington — before he is upset in the third round by 31-year-old Kevin Anderson — I ask him his thoughts on Federer’s observations about younger players’ aversion to net play, and whether they gave him pause. “Everybody likes to see something different, but nobody is going to change the style of game,” Thiem tells me. This feels like a judicious way of saying that he is happy in his happy place, where, in fairness, he has already found some success.

Nick Kyrgios, in theory, has the skill set and long reach for this style. Foremost, there is his serve. In the year leading up to the Citi Open, Kyrgios won his service games an impenetrable 90.3 percent of the time, surpassed only by big servebots John Isner and Ivo Karlovic, as well as Federer. Kyrgios’s career 87.2 percent puts him in the top 10 among all players since 1991, when the tour began recording serve and return statistics. Then there’s the racket work: His touch is unmistakably legible in his constant highlight-reel fodder. His signature moves include a cocksure half-volley where he scrapes the ball up with the racket between his legs (“tweener,” for short) and a feint where he hops up to the ball as if to smite it but instead feathers a drop shot. This sort of feel for the ball is linked to success at the net.

But during his first match in Washington, I see firsthand the elements that might continue to hold Kyrgios back, no matter how his style of play evolves. Taking on world No. 106 Tennys Sandgren, there are early warning signs of the physical and emotional brew that has dulled Kyrgios during so many previous matches. In the first set, between points he mouths to his camp, “I can’t play through this.” He later receives massage treatment for a shoulder injury in his serving arm, but he’s already down a set, and at 6-3, 3-0, he withdraws, for the third match straight. The crowd, which expected a show, buoys him off the court with boos.

Still, a notable thing happens late in that match, before the retirement: In his final two service games, he spontaneously stirs in three serve-and-volley points, which startles Sandgren a bit. These come well after Kyrgios has mentally departed the court, and they may have been borne more of boredom or despair rather than tactical intent, but they were effective, and they could pave a way forward — if he’s willing to take it.

Nick Kyrgios: The 22-year-old Australian beat Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic all on his first try against each. In the year leading up to the Citi Open, Kyrgios won his service games an impenetrable 90.3 percent of the time.

Nick Kyrgios: The 22-year-old Australian beat Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic all on his first try against each. In the year leading up to the Citi Open, Kyrgios won his service games an impenetrable 90.3 percent of the time.

Which brings us back to Sascha Zverev, who owns the penetrating serve and groundstrokes that often elicit short, weak responses — perfect invitations to move forward into the court. But for now, the only place on a tennis court that Zverev occasionally looks uncomfortable is at the net. It was the one asterisk on Patrick McEnroe’s otherwise fulsome endorsement. Alexander Sr. also acknowledged that it was the weakest point of Sascha’s game, in a pre-Wimbledon interview with the Telegraph.

What’s odd about this is that it’s a problem with a (literal) in-house solution: His older brother, Mischa, owns some of the finest volleys on tour. He is one of a nearly extinct breed of pure serve-and-volleyers, players hellbent for the net, even off milder second serves. This confounding style of play helped him topple No. 1 Andy Murray in the fourth round of the Australian Open this year, for the biggest Grand Slam win in either Zverev brother’s career. In Washington, Mischa loses a rough, rain-delayed three-setter that wraps up well after 1 a.m.; he spends the whole match rushing the net with scrambling abandon.

For two players raised and taught by the same tennis-instructor parents, the brothers Zverev play tennis about as divergently as you could imagine. I ask Sascha how this could be, and he chalks it up to his dad’s ingenuity as a coach: “You know, he has two sons in the top 25 in the world, with two completely different game styles. That’s not easy to do. You’ve got to be very smart and know what to teach. You know, our practice sessions are completely different. On court he’s doing different things. I do different things.”

The scolds of the sport have a lot of words, some of them justified, for Nick Kyrgios, but there is an irrefutable, flickering genius to his game.

Sascha seems to view them as discrete skill sets, but you can’t help wondering if he’ll one day borrow from his brother. A roughly 6-foot-6 wingspan descending on the forecourt, with good hands, is a terrifying prospect for any player — very hard to hit a ball past, or over. I ask him about Federer’s remarks and whether refining his net touch is a priority for him. He diplomatically suggests that Roger’s advice may have been aimed at the particular players he faced this year at Wimbledon rather than serving as an indictment of the younger players as a whole. But he does believe that net play is a prime concern going forward. “For sure,” he says. “I like to hit the ball big, and moving forward is so important in this game right now, that if you hit a big shot you can come in and put volleys away, and it makes your life easier. I’m trying to improve that right now.”

His coach, too, suggests that Sascha might evolve in this direction. “He’s trying it out a little bit. He likes to go to the net,” says Ferrero. “He likes to improve this kind of game. With the serve that he has, I think he can do it a lot of times in the future.”

Zverev needs no experimentation to clean up in Washington. After dropping the first set of his second-round match, he wins 10 sets in a row to take the title, the last four of which are against veterans Kei Nishikori and Kevin Anderson. These are tidy dissections, surprising in their straightforwardness, if not in the intricacy of the work. They are wins that provoke more slow exhales than sharp intakes of breath. Neither opponent can solve his serve, which is regularly hissing in at over 130 mph; Nishikori wins just seven points on it in the match.

Against Anderson in the final, Zverev breaks serve early in each set, then coasts. He becomes Washington’s youngest champion since 2008, and No. 8 in the world. His status as apex predator now looks inevitable, and even as you marvel at it, you hope that he will continue to find worthy foes that push him to find new tricks. With time, the whole sport really could be his. And perhaps, as his game unfurls, the whole court will be, too.