Novak Djokovic Reaches U.S. Open Final, One Victory From a Grand Slam

Twenty-seven down, one to go.

With a five-set win over Alexander Zverev of Germany on Friday night time, 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 yr and knocking out his first challengers on the U.S. Open, Djokovic now has to defeat solely Daniil Medvedev of Russia in Sunday’s ultimate to turn out to be the primary man to win the Grand Slam in a calendar yr in 52 years.

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

Djokovic wanted three hours and 35 minutes to defeat Zverev.Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

The win on Friday night time set the stage for some of the exceptional weekends in tennis. On Saturday, the teenage sensations Emma Raducanu of Britain and Leylah Fernandez of Canada, who’ve captivated their international locations and the crowds on 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 recognized two weeks in the past and now could be the primary participant to achieve a Grand Slam ultimate after making it into the primary draw via the qualifying match. Fernandez, who turned 19 this week and is ranked 73rd, was till a few days in the past often called 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 along with his largest rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, within the race for probably the most profession Grand Slam titles with 20, a competitors that Djokovic is decided to win so he can cement his legacy as the best participant ever. But that race could take a few 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 harm, can win a calendar-year Grand Slam. It is the factor that will make Djokovic the most important of the Big Three without end.

“The job is not done,” Djokovic mentioned simply previous midnight Saturday morning. “The excitement is there. The motivation is there, without a doubt. Probably more than ever. But I have one more to go.”

Djokovic went into Friday night time’s battle with the fourth-seeded Zverev after taking part in what he mentioned have been the three greatest units of the match in a quarterfinal defeat of Matteo Berrettini: a four-set, come-from-behind win over a youthful, larger and extra highly effective opponent.

Alexander Zverev gained the primary and fourth units.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 found out within the final yr the right way to preserve his cool within the largest moments. In the U.S. Open ultimate final yr, Zverev blew a two-set lead, and even served for the championship, solely to lose to Dominic Thiem in a tiebreaker on the finish of a fifth set that descended into a parade of slices, errors and double faults.

That model of Zverev has disappeared in latest months, particularly towards Djokovic. At the Tokyo Olympics, Zverev roared again from a set and a service break right 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 ft 6 inches tall, floats across the tennis court docket with the grace of an N.B.A. capturing guard, and may unleash 130 m.p.h serves and rocketing forehands at will when he’s taking part in effectively.

For the primary time for the reason that match started, although, the group in Arthur Ashe Stadium was firmly in Djokovic’s nook. He has lengthy been way more revered than cherished, however a former girlfriend has accused Zverev of abusing her repeatedly in 2019. No costs 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 night time and spurred him as he mounted his newest comeback.

Fans reacting 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 sport of the younger night time, whipping forehands that pressured Djokovic to stretch on his backhand. Zverev inched forward, after which Djokovic double-faulted to offer the massive German a likelihood 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 mentioned Djokovic by some means positive aspects vitality from dropping a set, relatively than turning into demoralized. Just as he had in his final three matches, Djokovic raised the extent of his sport and surged to a second-set lead as Zverev started swatting premature second serves into the online and getting lulled into the sorts of lengthy rallies which might be Djokovic’s power. An hour-and-a-quarter after they started, Djokovic and Zverev have 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 sport which may be the one historians level to because the second the end line of the Grand Slam lastly got here into sight.

No one in Arthur Ashe Stadium knew higher than Zverev that rallying with Djokovic would end in a sluggish and painful demise. And but, by some means, Djokovic managed to play a sort 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 avoid wasting the primary two.

If he defeats Daniil Medvedev on Sunday, Djokovic can even turn out to be the profession chief for singles wins by a man within the Slams, with 21.Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

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 on the internet to swat it right down to take the lead for the primary time all night time.

Zverev wouldn’t go quietly, although. He took a web page out of the Djokovic playbook and by some means appeared to attract vitality from falling behind. With Djokovic serving at 1-1, Zverev battled to show the third sport 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 likelihood at historical past was right down to a single set.

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

Now got here the prospect for another, and he didn’t waste any time leaping on it. Holding a 1-Zero lead, Djokovic — and certain everybody else within the stadium — may sense Zverev rising shaky, the previous Zverev returning. A double-fault gave Djokovic a sniff at a break at 15-30. A backhand error gave Djokovic the break level. Then another rally went the improper method for Zverev, and the set turned a seemingly inevitable sequence 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 executed.

A match that would have gone both method, Zverev known as it. “It went his way,” he mentioned. “Very often it does.”

And now the Grand Slam math turns into very, quite simple: The solely numbers that mattered have been these — 27 matches down, one to go.

Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times