Novak Djokovic defeats Alexander Zverev and reaches the ultimate in 2021

NEW YORK – Just one more thing.

That’s all Novak Djokovic needs at this US Open to achieve one of the rarest successes in any sport. That’s all he needs to rewrite tennis history in his unique way. That’s all he needs to win the Grand Slam.

On a night when he was once again tested and marginalized by a younger generation rival, Djokovic played all of his old hits in a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6 , 6-2 semi-final victory over No. 4 seeded Alexander Zverev.

And now, if he does it again on Sunday at Arthur Ashe Stadium against second-placed Daniil Medvedev, he will have an incomparable 21st major title and the distinction of being the first man to win the four most important tournaments in tennis same calendar year since Rod Laver in 1969.

“I know we want to talk about history,” said Djokovic. “I know it’s at stake. I am aware of that. Of course I am aware of that. But I’m just trying to hold onto what I know will work for me. I will treat this game as my last because it is arguably the most important of my career. “

If Djokovic’s approach to Sunday’s final is all about emptying the tank, his mental preparation for Zverev has been focusing on understanding what kind of fight he had to endure. But Djokovic didn’t have to look too far back after his presentation.

Just over a month ago at the Tokyo Olympics, Zverev came after a sentence and a break to stun Djokovic in the semifinals and deny him the gold medal he had been looking for to expand his collection.

Inspired by the confidence he gained that day, Zverev flew into Friday evening with a winning streak of 16 games and showed throughout the semifinals that he was ready to play head to toe with Djokovic in the baseline rallies. Sometimes, especially in the fourth set, when Zverev got an early break and held onto it to level the match, he even started pushing Djokovic off the floor with his strength.

“I think we both left everything out there,” said Zverev.

But to beat Djokovic in a best-of-five set match, it doesn’t take just one opponent. It takes everything. And for Zverev, the margin for error was so small that just a few missed first serves at the start of the fifth game opened the door for Djokovic to break him. Just a few minutes later, after Zverev turned a routine overhead at another breakpoint, Djokovic was completely out of danger.

Although Zverev described Djokovic’s second break as “ridiculous bad luck”, Djokovic had raised his level significantly in the fifth set and put every part of Zverev’s game under pressure until he finally found a way to crack it.

“I’m proud of the fight I put in,” said Djokovic. “In some moments I could probably have played better, but here too I have to be satisfied with delivering the best tennis I could in the most important set, the fifth set.”

This uncanny ability is why Djokovic is at the door to break an almost unthinkable record on Sunday, and why Zverev and the other celebrity players in their early 20s like Stefanos Tsitsipas and Medvedev got stuck on the doorstep of a Grand Slam title .

“He plays the best tennis when he has to, which many players don’t,” said Zverev. “Look, there’s a reason he won 20 Grand Slams. There’s a reason he spent most of the weeks in the world’s No. 1. There are many reasons for that. I think mentally he’s the best player who’s ever played the game. Mentally, I would rather play against anyone else than against him in the most important moments. “

Djokovic’s mental clarity was especially important at this tournament because he wants to achieve so much. When Serena Williams came to Flushing Meadows in 2015 to finish the Grand Slam, the fear in her game was evident throughout the tournament and she eventually lost the semifinals to Roberta Vinci, who had never won nearly a set against her in four previous meetings .

“I can understand what she went through,” said Djokovic. “I understand now.”

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Whether it’s the pressure, the opponents or Djokovic, who just aren’t playing at his absolute top level, it was an undeniable effort for him to get to the final. Although he has never faced the greatest danger, he lost the first set to his last four opponents and had to figure out how to turn the match around.

As a result, he spent 17 hours and 26 minutes on the pitch at that tournament. In contrast, Medvedev was ruthlessly efficient, taking only 11 hours and 51 minutes to get into the finals.

It is unclear whether this plays a role. When they met in the Australian Open final in January, Djokovic jumped on him early and didn’t let up, winning 7-5, 6-2, 6-2. Medvedev admitted on Friday that he hadn’t fought as hard as he should have in that match but vowed this time it wouldn’t happen.

Given how well Medvedev played this summer, Djokovic is likely to have a long, tough battle for the Grand Slam ahead of him. Writing history shouldn’t be easy.

“The job is not done,” said Djokovic. “There is excitement. The motivation is there without a doubt. Probably more than ever. But I still have one ahead of me. ”

Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

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