In pure sporting terms, 2020 represented progress for Alexander Zverev on the court. He started the year with a run to the semi-finals of the Australian Open, then lost in the final of the US Open after leading by two sets to love, before finishing with two titles in Cologne and making the final of the Paris Masters.
Yet he heads into the new season with more questions than most. And some very serious ones at that.
Hovering over everything there’s the domestic violence allegations made by his former girlfriend Olga Sharypova in November. Zverev has strongly denied them, saying they are “unfounded and untrue”, and Sharypova says she is not planning to file a legal complaint. Zverev is also set to become a father early in 2021, with another ex-girlfriend, Brenda Patea, revealing that she was pregnant in October.
Zverev also has the challenge of looking for a new coach after his partnership with David Ferrer ended.
The pair started working together in the middle of the year and seemed to be producing some promising results. However, Ferrer announced this week that he has decided to end the relationship.
“I had to decide by the end of the year; I spoke to Alexander and told him that I preferred not to continue working with him in 2021,” said former world No 3 Ferrer. “There wasn't a particular reason or anything; I just thought the time wasn't right. Everything is fine between us, and I'm grateful to Alexander for the opportunity he gave me to travel with him in the closing stages of the season.
“I'm not the right person to help Alexander at the moment.”
While the relationship appears to have ended amicably, Ferrer is the third former player to leave Zverev’s coaching team after Juan Carlos Ferrero and Ivan Lendl. Unlike Ferrer, neither Ferrero or Lendl left on positive terms.
Lendl, who helped Andy Murray make his Grand Slam breakthrough, said in 2019 that Zverev “has some off-court issues that make it difficult to working a way that is consistent with my philosophy”.
Ferrero suggested Zverev was too distracted with matters away from the court. “Zverev was three hours on the court, but he could not perform quality training for an hour and a half.
“There were protests. Stops. Anger. Distractions. At the time, we collided due to his lack of punctuality and lack of respect for the team members, even though his father helped me a lot.”
Zverev’s public image has presented difficulties. He has been curt in press conferences, appeared to ignore social-distancing rules during the Adria Tour last summer, and was then pictured partying when he should have been self-isolating.
Will Alexander Zverev win a Grand Slam in 2021?
Image credit: Getty Images
His actions led to German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung labelling him the "new bad boy of tennis".
The questions around him come at an inopportune time for Zverev as some of his main rivals appear to be taking the next step. He may have reached the final of a major in 2020 – and came very close to winning it – but it still appears he has fallen behind Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev, having previously been seen as the one who may break the dominance of the ‘Big Three’.
One positive for Zverev is that he still has time on his side. He’s only 23 while Thiem is 27 and Medvedev will soon be turning 25. This was a point he made after losing to Thiem in the US Open final.
I'm 23-years-old. I don't think it's my last chance. I do believe that I will be a Grand Slam champion at some point.
Boris Becker also believes Zverev’s time will come. “He is 23 years young. The future belongs to him,” said Becker about his fellow German after the US Open.
What does Zverev need to do to seize his chance?
On the face of it not much, considering last year was his best in terms of Grand Slam performances. There aren’t many weaknesses in his game; his serve can be one of the best on tour and he is able to dominate with his groundstrokes.
But there still seems to be a consistency lacking. Among his positive displays last year there were also some less impressive ones, such as at the season-opening ATP Cup, when he lost all his matches and after which Becker said they “exchanged some serious words off the court”. His straight-sets defeat to Tommy Paul in Acapulco was also disappointing while he had several chances to beat Andy Murray before losing at the Western & Southern Open.
Ferrero called it "irregularity" that means he can “play the fifth set heads or tails”.
Any improvements may depend on if Zverev finds a new coach and who that is, but there looks to be a lot for the German to tackle in 2021.