Alexander Zverev and Elina Svitolina are virtually the same players trapped in the same body. Mirror images, not only in manner of play but more so in the dispirited way the two have repeatedly crashed out in Grand Slam events over the last three years.
Their rankings (#5 for Zverev, #8 for Svitolina) speak to their successes, but success on the biggest stage eludes them.
In terms of playing style, Zverev and Svitolina resemble one another. While neither is exceptional at any particular skill, they both have well-versed games.
Zverev is an aggressive baseliner, who puts in big serves while hitting his forehand and backhand with vast pace. His return has improved every year and he does a fine job in using his 6’6” frame to create more muscle on his groundstrokes.
Along with Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas, he is the most touted player to represent the next generation of tennis stars after the Big Three of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal walk away from the sport. His flaws lie in a height that can impede his movement at times and an inconsistent net game.
For Svitolina, she’s a counterpuncher with a balanced game and operates on the baseline with consistent play off the ground. While not the quickest and most athletic getting around the court, she maintains steadiness when on the move.
At 5’9”, she’s not the kind of player that will beat you with natural power and elite ball-striking prowess like Zverev. Yet Svitolina holds modest capacity in her forehand and is even stronger on the backhand side, where she likes teeing off down the baseline. What holds her back is an average serve, uneasy play at net and the inability to regularly dictate rallies.
There are even parallels in their career trajectory.
Both rose to #3 in their respective tours in 2017, the highest either has ranked. For Zverev (11 career titles) and Svitolina (13), 2016 was the year they each moved up steadily in the rankings and put the ATP and WTA tours on notice.
Winning five titles apiece in 2017, they became bonafide top 10 players. Svitolina won three Premier 5 titles, had 11 wins over top 10 players and four wins against two players that were ranked #1 in the world (twice against both Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep). She also engineered a 15-match winning streak that spring, the longest of any player in women’s tennis in 2017.
Zverev won two Masters 1000 titles, defeating Djokovic to win the Italian Open and Federer for the Canadian Open. He produced seven top 10 wins, and finished the year ranked fourth.
2018 turned out to be both’s best season yet. While they each captured four titles, Zverev notched ten top 10 wins and Svitolina collected nine. Most notably they both won the biggest tournament of their careers at the ATP and WTA Championships to close out the 2018 season. After hitting such a high note with victories at what many consider the “fifth Grand Slam”, many tennis experts believed that would serve as momentum and confidence boosters for both that could translate into getting deeper into Grand Slams in 2019.
So far, this year hasn’t gone as expected for either player.
The most striking similarity between them is their penchant for underperforming and struggling on the biggest stages at Grand Slams. It’s fair to wonder if Zverev and Svitolina will ever make it past the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, let alone win one.
For the 22-year-old Zverev and 24-year-old Svitolina, the rounds of eight at these tournaments have been major stumbling blocks. Perhaps this is more about their individual psyches rather than talent, but neither one has been able to figure it out at this stage in their careers.
In the case of Zverev, the young German seems to lose concentration and his fitness fails him at the worst possible times. A recurring theme with Zverev is that he fades late in five-set matches. Widely brought up is the fact the legs on his skinny, frail body are not strong enough to last deep into matches on a regular basis.
There seems to be evidence to that. Since 2017, there have been multiple Grand Slam matches where his level of play drops inexplicably. He's lost the last set of six Grand Slam matches anywhere between 6-0 and 6-2, and lost them to unranked and top-ranked foes alike.
Maybe Zverev’s problems in Slams are strategic and tactical, which was suggested by former two-time Grand Slam finalist Mark Philippoussis, as he opined last December:
“The only guy who has stepped up is Zverev. But he hasn’t done it in Grand Slams yet. His game is staying back on the baseline and that’s no problem but when you’ve got seven best-of-five set matches to win you need to, you know, kind of get through that first week without working as hard. In my opinion, he just stays three or four feet too far back behind the baseline and he’s just doing a lot of work.”
When it comes to Svitolina, the burden of living up to expectations has seemingly gotten the better of her. In the last two years, the Ukrainian has usually been a top 5-10 seed at the Slams, but that hasn’t helped her get the results she’s looking for. She's reached three quarterfinals, but has also lost several times in the third and fourth rounds. There's even a first round loss within this period of struggle. Svitolina, along with Karolina Pliskova, remain the two best active players in women’s tennis without a Grand Slam title to their names.
With Wimbledon approaching next week, Alexander Zverev and Elina Svitolina once again will have the chance to get over their respective hurdles. Let’s just hope that the stars align for these two tennis souls sooner rather than later.