That’s all Novak Djokovic needs at this U.S. Open to complete one of the rarest achievements in all of sports. That’s all he needs to rewrite tennis history in a manner that is uniquely his. That’s all he needs to win the Grand Slam.
On a night where he was once again tested and pushed to the brink by a rival from the younger generation, Djokovic played all his old hits in a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 semifinal victory over No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev.
And now, if he can do it one more time on Sunday at Arthur Ashe Stadium against No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev, he’ll have a peerless 21st major title and the distinction of being the first man to win tennis’ four most important tournaments in the same calendar year since Rod Laver in 1969.
“I know we want to talk about history,” Djokovic said. “I know it’s on the line. I’m aware of it. Of course, I’m aware of it. But I’m just trying to lock into what I know works for me. I’m going to treat this match as it’s my last one because it’s arguably the most important one of my career.”
If Djokovic’s approach to Sunday’s final is all about emptying the tank, his mental preparation for Zverev centered on understanding the kind of fight he’d have to endure. But Djokovic didn’t have to look too far back for his template.
A little more than a month ago at the Tokyo Olympics, Zverev came from a set and a break down to stun Djokovic in the semifinals and deny him the gold medal he had long sought to add to his collection.
Buoyed by the confidence he gained that day, Zverev flew into Friday night on a 16-match winning streak and showed throughout the semifinals he was willing to go toe-to-toe with Djokovic in grinding baseline rallies. At times, particularly in the fourth set when Zverev got an early break and held onto it to level the match, he even started to push Djokovic around with his power off the ground.
“I think we both left it all out there,” Zverev said.
But ultimately, beating Djokovic in a best-of-five set match doesn’t just require one thing of an opponent. It takes everything. And for Zverev, the margin for error was so small that just a few missed first serves early in the fifth opened the door for Djokovic to break him. Just a few minutes later, after Zverev shanked a routine overhead on yet another break point, Djokovic was out of danger completely.
Novak Djokovic celebrates after match point against Alexander Zverev in the U.S. Open semifinals.
Though Zverev called Djokovic’s second break “ridiculous unlucky,” the reality is that Djokovic had raised his level significantly in the fifth set, applying pressure to every part of Zverev’s game until he ultimately found a way to crack him.
“I’m proud of the fight that I delivered,” Djokovic said. “I probably could have played better in some moments, but again, I have to be satisfied with delivering the best tennis I possibly could in the most important set, which was the fifth set.”
That uncanny ability is why Djokovic stands on the doorstep of breaking an almost unthinkable record Sunday, and why Zverev and the other prominent players in their early 20s like Stefanos Tsitsipas and Medvedev have been stymied on the doorstep of a Grand Slam title.
“He plays the best tennis when he needs to, which a lot of players don’t,” Zverev said. “Look, there is a reason why he’s won 20 Grand Slams. There’s a reason why he’s spent the most weeks at world No. 1. There’s a lot of reasons for that. I think mentally, he’s the best player to ever play the game. Mentally, in the most important moments, I would rather play against anybody else but him.”
Djokovic’s mental clarity has been so necessary at this tournament in particular because of the enormity of what he’s trying to achieve. When Serena Williams came to Flushing Meadows in 2015 trying to finish off the Grand Slam, the anxiety in her game was apparent throughout the tournament and she ultimately lost the semifinals to Roberta Vinci, who had never come close to winning a set against her in four previous meetings.
“I can relate to what she was going through,” Djokovic said. “I understand it now.”
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Whether it’s the pressure, the opponents or Djokovic simply not playing at his absolute highest level, this has been an undeniable grind for him to get to the finals. Though he’s never faced the utmost danger, he has lost the first set to his last four opponents and had to figure out how to get the match turned around.
As a result, he’s spent 17 hours, 26 minutes on the court in this tournament. By contrast, Medvedev has been ruthlessly efficient, needing only 11 hours, 51 minutes to get into the final.
Whether that will matter is unclear. When they met in the Australian Open final in January, Djokovic jumped on him early and never let up, winning 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. Medvedev acknowledged Friday that he did not fight as hard as he should have in that match but vowed that would not happen this time.
Given how well Medvedev has played this summer, Djokovic is likely to have one more long, tough fight on his hands to secure the Grand Slam. Making history is not supposed to be easy.
“Job is not done,” Djokovic said. “Excitement is there. Motivation is there, without a doubt. Probably more than ever. But I have one more to go.”