Novak Djokovic Beat Alexander Zverev, Will Play for Grand Slam at U.S. Open

Twenty-seven down, one to go.

With a five-set win over Alexander Zverev of Germany on Friday evening, Novak Djokovic moved to inside a single match victory of pulling off probably the most hallowed achievement in tennis.

After profitable the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon this 12 months and knocking out his first challengers at the U.S. Open, Djokovic now has to defeat solely Daniil Medvedev of Russia in Sunday’s remaining to change into the primary man to win the Grand Slam in a calendar 12 months since Rod Laver did it in 1969.

And he bought there in model, coming from behind early on, then surviving an onslaught from an opponent who appeared for a time that he may simply have Djokovic’s quantity. Zverev got here shut, forcing Djokovic to go the space in a grueling Four-6, 6-2, 6-Four, Four-6, 6-2 win, however the razor-thin margin solely made Djokovic’s quantity at the Grand Slams in 2021 appear much more mysterious.

The win on Friday evening set the stage for one of the crucial outstanding weekends in tennis. On Saturday, the teenage sensations Emma Raducanu of Britain and Leylah Fernandez of Canada, who’ve captivated their nations and the crowds at the U.S. Open, will compete for the ladies’s title within the unlikeliest of finals.

Raducanu, 18 and ranked 150th on this planet, was barely identified two weeks in the past and now could be the primary participant to achieve a Grand Slam remaining after making it into the primary draw via the qualifying match. Fernandez, who turned 19 this week and is ranked 73rd, was till a couple of days in the past generally known as little greater than a scrappy, undersized battler whose future was anybody’s guess.

On Sunday, Djokovic will tackle Medvedev and play for historical past. He is tied together with his largest rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, within the race for probably the most profession Grand Slam titles with 20, a contest that Djokovic is set to win so he can cement his legacy as the best participant ever. But that race could take a couple of extra years to achieve its conclusion. At this level, although, it’s practically unattainable to consider that Federer and Nadal, who’re battling age and damage, can win a calendar-year Grand Slam. It is the factor that may make Djokovic the largest of the Big Three endlessly.

Djokovic went into Friday evening’s battle with the fourth-seeded Zverev after enjoying what he stated had been the three finest units of the match in a quarterfinal defeat of Matteo Berrettini: a four-set, come-from-behind win over a youthful, greater and extra highly effective opponent.

Alexander Zverev gained the opening set.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Djokovic, 34, was going to want a repeat efficiency towards Zverev, a so-called subsequent era star who has discovered within the final 12 months learn how to preserve his cool within the largest moments. In the U.S. Open remaining final 12 months, Zverev blew a two-set lead, and even served for the championship, solely to lose to Dominic Thiem in a tiebreaker at the tip of a fifth set that descended right into a parade of slices, errors and double faults.

That model of Zverev has disappeared in latest months, particularly towards Djokovic. In the Tokyo Olympics, Zverev roared again from a set and a service break all the way down to overwhelm Djokovic in a semifinal.

When the draw for the U.S. Open got here out two weeks in the past, a rematch with Zverev within the semifinal spherical loomed as one of many largest potential obstacles for Djokovic in his hunt for his sport’s holy grail. Zverev, 24, stands 6 toes 6 inches tall, floats across the tennis courtroom with the grace of an N.B.A. taking pictures guard, and may unleash 130 m.p.h serves and rocketing forehands at will when he’s enjoying nicely.

For the primary time because the match started, although, the group in Arthur Ashe Stadium was firmly in Djokovic’s nook. He has lengthy been way more revered than beloved, however a former girlfriend has accused Zverev of abusing her repeatedly in 2019. No expenses have been filed and Zverev has denied the allegations, however the off-the-court state of affairs disqualified him from being embraced as an endearing underdog.

Chants of “Nole” — Djokovic’s favored nickname — started early within the evening and spurred him as he mounted his newest comeback.

Fans react through the third set.Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

The match began as so many others have for Djokovic — with an early hiccup that made the mountain he must climb that a lot steeper.

This slip occurred as Djokovic served with the rating tied at 4 video games every, a second fraught with hazard towards somebody with a function highly effective as Zverev’s.

Zverev performed his most aggressive recreation of the younger evening, whipping forehands that compelled Djokovic to stretch on his backhand. Zverev inched forward, after which Djokovic double-faulted to offer the large German an opportunity to serve out the set. He didn’t waste it. Zverev gained the opening set, simply as Djokovic’s earlier three opponents had.

But Djokovic is nearly as good at flipping the script as anybody who has ever picked up a racket.

Berrettini has stated Djokovic someway good points power from shedding a set, quite than changing into demoralized. Just as he had in his final three matches, Djokovic raised the extent of his recreation and surged to a second-set lead as Zverev started swatting premature second serves into the web and getting lulled into the sorts of lengthy rallies which can be Djokovic’s energy. An hour-and-a-quarter after they started, Djokovic and Zverev had been again the place they began, all tied up.

The turning level of the match got here practically an hour later. With Zverev serving to remain within the set, Djokovic placed on a show of tennis genius and performed a recreation which may be the one historians level to because the second the end line of the Grand Slam lastly got here into sight.

Djokovic serving.Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

No one in Arthur Ashe Stadium knew higher than Zverev that rallying with Djokovic would end in a sluggish and painful dying. And but, someway, Djokovic managed to play a form of tennis Tai chi, sustaining rallies of 18, 32 and 12 pictures to get to triple set level. Zverev survived rallies of 21 pictures and an absurd 53 to save lots of the primary two.

Then, on the 15th shot of the sixth level of the sport, he may do no higher than float a determined lob to Djokovic, who was ready at the web to swat it all the way down to take the lead for the primary time all evening.

Zverev wouldn’t go quietly, although. He took a web page out of the Djokovic playbook and someway appeared to attract power from falling behind. With Djokovic serving at 1-1, Zverev battled to show the third recreation right into a mini-marathon, digging in and clinching it with a slick forehand passing shot that Djokovic couldn’t come near touching. With Zverev’s serve cranking up past the 130 m.p.h mark, Djokovic couldn’t discover the opening to get even. Djokovic’s probability at historical past was all the way down to a single set.

Djokovic’s run to the precipice of the Grand Slam has had its share five-set escapes. There was an early spherical escape towards in Australia in February, when he overcame a torn stomach muscle and the American Taylor Fritz. In Paris, he got here again from two units all the way down to Lorenzo Musetti halfway via the match and towards Stefanos Tsitsipas within the remaining.

Now got here the possibility for yet one more, and he didn’t waste any time leaping on it. Holding a 1-Zero lead, Djokovic — and sure everybody else within the stadium — may sense Zverev rising shaky. A double-fault gave Djokovic a sniff at a break at 15-30. A backhand error gave Djokovic the break level. Then yet one more rally went the mistaken means for Zverev, and the set turned a seemingly inevitable collection of Zverev misses, together with one leaping overhead smashed wildly out of bounds.

One final backhand error for one final service break and after three hours and 35 minutes, Zverev was lastly accomplished, and the Grand Slam math was very, quite simple: The solely numbers that mattered had been these — 27 matches down, one to go.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times