Family Band

In a sport that demands individualism, the Zverevs roll deep.

Ben Rothenberg | Racquet and Longreads | August 2017 | 9 minutes (2,122 words)

Our latest Exclusive is a new story by tennis writer Ben Rothenberg and produced in partnership with Racquet magazine.

To hear Alexander Zverev Sr. tell it, the tale of how his younger, golden-haired son began to play tennis has the simplicity of a fairy tale involving the Three Bears.

“It was all natural for Sascha,” he said. “Mama played, Papa played, brother played. And so, he started to play.”

While the Williams sisters have made family reunions in the finals of Grand Slams feel normal, multiple branches of a family tree breaking through to the top of the sport remains a rare phenomenon. This is particularly so in the men’s game, where brothers have rarely shared space in the top 200 together over the past decade. But in a sport that demands individualism, the Zverevs have managed to become the archetypal tennis family, a story line that’s become increasingly prominent in professional tennis, where the various methods of grooming top players are hotly debated.

Spanning generations and cultures, the Zverevs travel the tour together as four: father Alexander Sr., 57; mother Irina, 50; older brother Mischa, 29; and younger brother Alexander Jr., called Sascha, 20. The group is completed by Lövik, a toy poodle who does not play tennis himself but seems to enjoy the sport.

Under the guidance of their parents, both Mischa and Sascha became world-class juniors and now top 30 ATP players. Their biggest successes yet came in early 2017: Mischa reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open after beating top-seeded Andy Murray, and Sascha made his top 10 debut after winning the Italian Open, the first Masters title for a player his age in a decade.

The younger Zverevs had their courses charted by parents who also achieved tennis success—though by different metrics, as Soviet athletes were rarely able to compete outside the U.S.S.R. during what would’ve been the heydays of their careers.

Family friend Olga Morozova at Wimbledon, 1970. (Photo by Ed Lacey/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Olga Morozova was wary that the elder Zverevs might downplay their pedigrees. Morozova—perhaps the best-known player of the Soviet era, reaching the French Open and Wimbledon finals in 1974—had ostensibly joined our table in the players’ garden at the Italian Open to be a translator for Alexander Sr. and Irina as needed, but she quickly turned into a booster instead.

“This gentleman in front of you was one of the best tennis players in the Soviet Union, and I think he was unlucky not to be here and doing it here,” she said of Alexander Sr. “And that lady, Irina, was on the national team. I have to start, because sometimes they don’t know how to say it about themselves, but they both are very good tennis players. And that’s why their sons are playing so well, because they have very good knowledge about tennis.”

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Both from the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Alexander Sr. and Irina both played the sport as children with the free equipment provided by government-backed coaches.

“You come to tennis courts, the coach gives you racquet and balls,” Alexander Sr. said. “And if there’s no court, you go to the wall and you start to play there. It was very simple, very nice.”

They married when he was 24 and she was 17.

“Why not?” Morozova said, anticipating any objection to their age difference. “It’s normal. She was a good-looking girl, and he was a good tennis player.”

Both were good tennis players, in fact: Irina was the fourth-best in the Soviet Union, which meant she narrowly missed out on the limited travel opportunities her husband enjoyed as a member of the Davis Cup team.

“This generation of people were lost for tennis,” Morozova said. “It’s bad luck for them—and bad luck for the rest of the world, because they were such talented players.”

Irina said there was no sense of frustration at the time about what they missed out on.

“We didn’t know another way,” she said. “We first know it’s a possibility when we moved to Germany. Before, in Soviet Union, it was a nice country. Everything was for free, everybody was happy. And after, when we moved, we can see the difference.”

In November 1991, one month before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Alexander Sr., Irina, and their 4-year-old son Mischa emigrated, legally, from Russia to Hamburg, Germany, where work awaited them in a tennis club.

It was an adjustment in culture, language, and sport. Alexander Sr. had previously coached at CSKA Moscow, one of the Soviet Union’s training centers for elite talent. In Germany, he worked as an instructor for average players of all ages.

“It was completely another job,” he said. “But, okay. After one month, I understood what was happening, and okay, I worked.”

A new elite player was in his midst, however, as Mischa developed into one of the best in Germany, Europe, and then the world.

“Growing up, my dad was my idol. And he played tennis, so I wanted to be like my dad,” Mischa said. “When I was older, Sascha looked up to me and my dad and wanted to be a tennis player too. It was a natural thing. If the whole family is professional tennis players, I think the chances are very slim that my brother and I would grow up wanting to be a doctor or lawyer or something like that.”

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At first, Sascha stayed behind.

“My mom always tells me Sascha’s first real sentence was ‘Where’s Mischa?’ because when he was little I always used to travel with my dad,” said Mischa. “He understood that I was traveling and playing for tennis, and then he always wanted to play.”

When Mischa came home, Sascha would set up a net of sorts out of VHS cassettes for them to play five-set matches in their apartment, playing the roles of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.

“These imaginary battles, that’s how it all started,” Mischa said. “As he grew, I kept playing with him—in small-court tennis, mini tennis, and then advanced to the big court.”

Though still much too young to compete, Sascha tagged along as Mischa began competing in junior Grand Slams, getting to know other promising juniors in Mischa’s age bracket such as Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and Gaël Monfils.

Sascha took advantage of his access to the Grand Slams by trying to talk his way into playing on the biggest courts. “When he got to a tournament he’d say, ‘Where is the tournament director? I must speak to him!’” Irina recalled. “I’d say, ‘Sascha, why do you want him?’ ‘I must speak to him! I must speak to him about my match. I must play on Centre Court.’”

While he didn’t manage to get into Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, young Sascha did successfully talk his way into hitting in Hisense Arena, which seats 9,500.

“I always wanted to do everything my brother did,” Sascha said. “My brother was a professional tennis player traveling around the world, and I always wanted to do that as well. I came to the biggest events on tour and saw the amount of people that were watching him, and the stadiums that he played in, so that was something that I always wanted to do.”

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Sascha Zverev defeated Roger Federer to win the Rogers Cup in Montreal on Aug. 13, 2017. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

When it was Sascha’s turn to compete on those stages, he thrived, winning the junior Australian Open in 2014 and reaching his first ATP semifinal in Hamburg later that year.

Headlines in Germany declared him the “next Boris Becker.” Becker, the last German man to win a Grand Slam, won his last in 1996, a year before Sascha was born.

Coming from a major but dormant market with a head of shaggy blond hair that would light up any boy band poster, Sascha has the tour salivating at his superstar potential, and he was made the face of its “Next Gen” campaign.

Alexander Sr., who still coaches both his sons, said he tried, futilely, to quiet the buzz that Sascha is a can’t-miss champion. “At first we tried to stop this,” he said. “Of course we have this target, but he must do a lot of work. If he thinks one time, one moment, ‘I am good,’ that’s very dangerous. Federer is unbelievably good, but he works, he practices. For Sascha, it’s important not what people say, but what he does.”

While he attracts the attention, Sascha remains ebullient and deferential about Mischa’s talent and potential, which was stalled for several years by a myriad of injuries to his wrist, ribs, back, and knee.

The two compete against each other in PlayStation games like FIFA and NBA 2K—“He gets very annoyed and then quits after a few times,” Sascha said of Mischa—but they’re quickly each other’s greatest supporters. Any suggestion that his career has surpassed his brother’s leads Sascha to quickly point out that Mischa has made a Grand Slam quarterfinal, something he hasn’t yet done.

“I always thought he’s actually better than his ranking,” Sascha said of Mischa. “I always said that to you guys, and maybe some of you guys thought that I’m just saying that because he’s my brother, but he’s proved that I’m right, in a way.”

That sort of defiance can be typical for Sascha, who often quickly loses patience with the media who gather in increasing numbers after his matches, eager to understand and validate the hype, often asking repetitive, basic questions.

At the start of one press conference in Rome, Sascha balked at a question that began with an observation that he possessed “confidence on court and off court.”

“Off court in what way?” Sascha asked, cutting the young Italian reporter off. He was unsatisfied by the stammering clarification that followed.

“Yeah, I think you meant something else,” he determined with a withering stare.

Sascha and Mischa Zverev in a doubles match in Indian Wells, March 2017. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Despite his antagonistic response to the suggestion, Sascha’s assuredness is hardly disputed on tour. John Isner, whom Sascha beat in the Italian Open semifinals, described him as “a certainly very confident kid” who carries himself with “a lot of swagger.”

Isner is based at Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, where the Zverev family also established a training base; he remembered being blown away by Sascha’s skills as a young teen.

“Like, goddang,” Isner recalled.

After adding praise for Mischa and the parents—“They don’t gloat about anything, they just go about their business”—Isner also spoke glowingly about the youngest in the clan.

“I like that dog a lot as well,” Isner said of Lövik. “He’s pretty cool, and he fits in with the family. It’s a cool family, and they have a cool dog.”

* * *

Lövik, who has a somewhat similar mop of curls atop his head, most reliably brings out the softer side of Sascha.

“Sascha doesn’t have too much time, but when he does he loves it, to stay with Lövik,” said Irina. “He can sleep, he can play with him. Lövik every morning comes to him first—to Sascha, every morning—and kisses him for 10, 15 minutes, nonstop. It’s very important for him.”

On tour, though, care of Lövik often falls to Irina, which can be a welcome distraction for her during Sascha’s matches. Since Sascha turned 16, his mother has been too nervous to watch him play. She’ll wander off into a park, or onto a beach, and wait for a message on her phone telling her that the match is over.

“I think I was too long with Sascha alone,” she said. “Papa traveled with Mischa, and Sascha was too close to me, so it hurts too much.”

Irina’s self-exiling is an extreme example of a balance the family has managed on the road of knowing how much space to give one another.

“We’re close, but at the same time my parents are very smart people,” Sascha said. “They know that if we’re going to spend every single minute together, then at some point we’re going to go nuts at each other. So on the tennis court they’re always there, when we’re on site they’re always there, but they let us do our own things. But they’re always there, so I have nothing to be homesick of.”

Irina, who cedes most all of the coaching duties to her husband, also finds peace in making the road as much like home as possible. During Grand Slam events, the family will rent a house, where she cooks and cleans.

“The kids love it when I cook, you know?” she said. “Because 300 days a year they travel and stay in hotels. It’s mom work, it’s normal, but I think this is very important for travel.”

Morozova, again, showed her approval. “It makes them feel good, so it’s very important,” she said, nodding. “I think they’re doing a great job. I think you have to write this article and tell people how they’re supposed to raise children.”

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Ben Rothenberg is a freelance tennis writer from Washington, D.C. He contributes to The New York Times and other outlets, and cohosts the No Challenges Remaining tennis podcast.