Australian Open 2016: Hand of Federer hanging over Murray’s opener

German Alexander Zverev plays Scot Andy Murray at the Australian Open on Tuesday. Photo: Paul KaneAfter a poor run of results against Roger Federer, Andy Murray must have been delighted when the two men found themselves in opposite halves of this Australian Open draw.

Yet Federer could still play a hand in Murray’s first-round match on Tuesday as a tactical adviser to the German wunderkind Alexander Zverev.

Zverev, who will be facing Murray for the first time, has friends in high places. A gifted 18-year-old with future world No.1 already being mentioned with his name, Federer is just one of the established players who have cottoned on to his potential. Over the past 18 months they have built a strong, German-speaking relationship.

“For some reason, Roger quite likes me,” Zverev said on Friday in his equally fluent English.

“It started in Cincinnati: he had no one to warm up with and I was there. We hit for 30 minutes maybe and then we just sat on court for 45 minutes talking to each other. Then after that he was always nice to me. We’re kind of from neighbour countries.”

Zverev was looking forward to accessing Federer’s tactical databank.

“He always gives me tips on how to act on court, how to behave in different moments, how to behave against different players,” Zverev said. “He can probably help me a bit with how he sees my game and what he thinks I can hurt Andy with.”

Zverev won the junior title at the Australian Open two years ago and is still scouting out the landscape of the senior game. Significant search-and-destroy missions still look to be a couple of seasons away, and the odds favour Murray easing through his opening round in straight sets for the fourth consecutive year.

But you cannot watch Zverev on the court, or meet him in the flesh, without being impressed by his potential. If he does turn out to be the next big thing (very big, at 198 centimetres), then the game is in good hands, because this young man has serious charisma.

Were he not a tennis player, you could imagine him making waves as a pop star or actor.

Zverev’s greatest challenge over the next couple of seasons will lie in managing the physical transition that every tennis prodigy has to go through.

At the moment, he still looks coltish and spindly, even after stacking on muscle over the off-season. His body shape actually resembles Murray’s at the same age, despite the extra couple of inches in height. Which may explain why he has spent the past two years working with Jez Green, the same fitness trainer who guided Murray’s own athletic evolution between 2007 and 2014.

“I think Jez is one of the best physical trainers in tennis,” said Zverev. “He did an unbelievable job with Andy because Andy was quite skinny as well when he was 17 or 18. He was physically not the best but now he is probably the best tennis athlete in the sport.

“I am quite skinny still and Jez’s main goal is to make me stronger and prevent injuries,” Zverev added. “He is one of the biggest reasons why I’m top-100 now, because I started to really feel stronger. We’ve been working together since early 2014. Jez was still working with Andy then, of course, but Andy was totally fine with it. I’m still very thankful for that.”

While Zverev lauds Murray for his generosity of spirit, he also suspects that his own youth was a factor in the decision. Had the request come from a direct contemporary, he suggests, the response would not have been so favourable.

Tomorrow’s match will go some way towards revealing whether this was the right call, and whether the 10-year age gap is indeed enough to prevent Zverev from being a threat. The teenager should at least be grateful for all those gym hours if forecasts of 37 degree temperatures turn out to be accurate.

The Daily Telegraph

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