Novak Djokovic Tries to End 52-Year Grand Slam Drought at U.S. Open

Novak Djokovic would possibly disagree, however after a 52-year vigil within the males’s sport, you need the Grand Slam to be worthy of the wait.

You need it to be not simply inspiring however devilishly tough, with opponents throwing coronary heart, soul and full-cut forehands into stopping the hunt.

You need, in essence, matches like Djokovic’s Friday night time semifinal at the U.S. Open towards Alexander Zverev. Five units of thorny questions answered and of break factors saved through which, as so usually within the moments that matter most, Djokovic discovered a means to impose his sport and can.

“He plays the best tennis when he needs to, which a lot of players don’t,” Zverev mentioned.

Djokovic was calm, unusually calm, as he once more labored all of it out, sifting by way of risk-reward ratios, making tactical shifts and, above all, refusing to miss on the most important factors. Full focus was required as a result of the hazard of his Grand Slam working onto the rocks was actual, simply as it is going to be on Sunday when he faces Daniil Medvedev, one other taller and far youthful opponent, within the closing.

Djokovic, a person who likes to chew on the grass after profitable Wimbledon, is shut sufficient to style his 21st profession Grand Slam singles title, which might break his tie with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the lads’s report. But the shiniest prize at this stage is the Grand Slam: profitable all 4 main singles titles in the identical season.

Nadal and Federer, for all their presents and enduring excellence, have by no means come shut. Djokovic is one match away, which is not any shock to Open officers, who way back recruited Rod Laver to come to New York to award the trophy on Sunday.

Laver, an Australian lefthander nicknamed Rocket, accomplished the Grand Slam in 1962 as an beginner and in 1969 as an expert. No man has executed it since. His pink hair has lengthy since gone grey. He is 83 and nonetheless passionate concerning the sport, and he was entrance and heart within the president’s field on Friday, simply as he will probably be on Sunday.

“I’m going to treat the next match like it’s the last match of my career,” Djokovic advised the ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe in his on-court interview Friday.

It would have been extra symbolic if Nadal or Federer was the one making an attempt to maintain Djokovic from clearing the ultimate hurdle. But a champion can play solely the opposition he’s dealt, and if Nadal and Federer have each been sidelined at this superior stage with accidents, that solely underscores Djokovic’s resilience and longevity.

Staying wholesome sufficient to maintain profitable is a part of the greatness equation, a part of the problem, and it has been left to Djokovic, nonetheless No. 1, to maintain off the following technology in New York.

So far, so nice towards the most effective expertise accessible: the Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini within the quarterfinals and the 2021 Olympic gold medalist Zverev within the semifinals.

“Look, there is a reason why he’s won 20 Grand Slams, and there’s a reason why he’s spent the most weeks at world No. 1,” Zverev mentioned. “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.”

Should Djokovic win the U.S. Open on Sunday, he’ll stand alone among the many males with 21 profession Grand Slam titles.Credit…Ben Solomon for The New York Times

Djokovic, who is aware of Zverev properly as a result of each are primarily based in Monte Carlo, can sense the trepidation within the opposition and take energy from it.

“Probably all these big matches that I won, big titles over the years, have kind of built that kind of aura around me that players know there’s a never-die spirit with me, especially when I play Grand Slams,” he mentioned. “They know that until the last shot, things can turn around, which was the case in several occasions throughout my career. So I’m glad that my opponents think of me that way. I want them to feel that they are under extreme pressure when I’m facing them on a big stage in Grand Slams.”

Djokovic was not all the time a rock. Early in his profession, he had a status for taking frequent damage timeouts and retiring from matches. In 2008 at the U.S. Open, the American star Andy Roddick mocked Djokovic at a information convention by reciting a largely fictional laundry record of his illnesses, together with each ankles, “a back and a hip, cramp, bird flu, anthrax, SARS, common cough and cold.”

Was Djokovic bluffing throughout matches?

Roddick demurred. “If it’s there, it’s there,” he mentioned. “There’s just a lot. He’s either quick to call a trainer, or he’s the most courageous guy of all time. I think it’s up for you guys to decide.”

That change looks like historic historical past. Djokovic addressed his endurance points and respiration difficulties with two surgical procedures for a deviated septum and a shift in 2010 to a gluten-free, largely plant-based eating regimen.

He grew to become an ironman, and greater than a decade later, the youthful set nonetheless can’t sustain. After he defeated Zverev, Four-6, 6-2, 6-Four, Four-6, 6-2, Djokovic’s report in five-set matches was an outstanding 36-10.

The final man who can cease the Grand Slam is Medvedev, 25, a lean and trilingual Russian who’s ranked No. 2 and is at his greatest on hardcourts.

He misplaced the 2019 U.S. Open closing in 5 units to Nadal, and Medvedev’s glowing type at the beginning of this season had many anticipating one other traditional match when he confronted Djokovic within the Australian Open closing.

Instead, Djokovic gained, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2, breaking Medvedev’s sport and spirit after a detailed first set. But Medvedev, who has gained 14 of his final 15 matches, has had a extra restful journey to the ultimate in New York than Djokovic, dropping only one set to Djokovic’s six.

“I’m going to give all I have left on Sunday, and I have a lot left,” Medvedev mentioned after defeating Felix Auger-Aliassime in straight units.

Djokovic beat Medvedev at the Australian Open this yr.Credit…Paul Crock/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Medvedev has overwhelmed Djokovic 3 times in best-of-three-set matches however by no means within the best-of-five format. Opinions are divided on what method he ought to take. McEnroe, a former U.S. Davis Cup captain who was courtside for ESPN on Friday, believes Medvedev wants to “out-patience” Djokovic.

“It looked to me like Medvedev came out in Australia and thought, ‘I will outhit this guy,’ but he doesn’t hit big enough to outhit him,” McEnroe mentioned. “He has to outmaneuver him, which I think he can do. I think he has the shot tolerance. The question is, does he have the guts? You’ve got to be willing to go to the wall in every way, shape and form and not only play your best strategic match but physically be ready to suffer like you have never suffered before.”

What is obvious is that Medvedev, in his third main closing, now not is content material with making a deep run. He desires his first Grand Slam title way more than he cares about stopping Djokovic’s Grand Slam.

“It’s true there is a lot of stake for him, and though that could put a lot of pressure on him, knowing him, the pressure will make him stronger,” Medvedev mentioned. “I’m just going to give all I have, and I’m surely not going to think in the middle of the match if I’m winning that ‘OK, I’m ruining the record he’s trying to beat.’ It’s only the match that counts for me.”

Djokovic additionally will strive to give attention to the match and solely the match whereas recognizing that this implies ignoring the elephant within the stadium.

“I know we want to talk about history; I know it’s on the line,” he mentioned late on Friday night time. “Of course, I’m aware of it, but I’m just trying to lock into what I know works for me. I have my routines. I have my people. I isolate myself. I gather all the necessary energy for the next battle, only the next match.”

It is difficult to wager towards him at this stage. After he has reeled within the greats, Federer and Nadal. After he has stared down a lot stress. After he has added dimensions to his sport, just like the drop photographs that have been usually so efficient towards Zverev on Friday.

But the Grand Slam has lengthy been tennis’s steepest hill to climb, and it is going to be tough to block it out with Laver entrance and heart and Djokovic so shut to one thing so uncommon.

But then shouldn’t a Grand Slam be arduous, very arduous, after a 52-year wait?