If Novak Djokovic does complete the first calendar-year Grand Slam for a man since 1969 — and he is headed to the U.S. Open final, just one victory away — he, and everyone else, will remember one particularly pivotal, and epic, game along the way.
It came at the conclusion of the third set of what eventually became a 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 victory over Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Alexander Zverev in the semifinals at Flushing Meadows on Friday night, making Djokovic 27-0 in major championships this season.
The game featured one extended exchange after another, including a 53-shot, minute-plus point that was the longest of the tournament and actually was lost by Djokovic on a forehand winner by Zverev, who hunched over with his hands on his knees as most of Arthur Ashe Stadium’s 21,139 spectators rose in unison on a cool, crisp evening.
But that one outcome didn’t matter. Never seems to with Djokovic, especially in best-of-five-set matches on his sport’s most prestigious stages. As usual, he used his superb returning and never-take-a-rest defense to wear down Zverev.
So, yes, Djokovic lost that point — which was preceded by others lasting 13, 19, 22 and 31 shots, and followed by one that went 16 — but he won that game, and that set with it. Just as he had lost the first set about one-and-a-half hours earlier, but turned things around, with the help of a dip in level from the fourth-seeded Zverev. And just as, later, Djokovic lost the fourth set but immediately rebounded and was nearly untouchable while going ahead 5-0 in the fifth .
Djokovic, who has spent more weeks at number one in the ATP rankings than anyone, figures out what is required to emerge on top and does it. In each of his past four matches — and 10 in all at the Slams this year — he trailed by a set and won.
Beating number two Daniil Medvedev on Sunday will allow Djokovic to secure two significant milestones. He would add the 2021 U.S. Open trophy to those he won at the Australian Open in February, French Open in June and Wimbledon in July. And the 34-year-old from Serbia would collect his 21st Slam title in all, breaking the men’s career mark he currently shares with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
He also equaled Federer on Friday by getting to a 31st career Slam final; Djokovic’s total now includes a record nine in New York.
It will be number three for Medvedev, a 25-year-old from Russia, who eliminated 12th-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 in the afternoon.
Medvedev was defeated by Djokovic in this year’s Australian Open final and by Nadal in the 2019 U.S. Open final.
"The more you lose something, the more you want to win it. The more you want to gain it and take it," said Medvedev, who has lost only one set over the past two weeks. "I lost two finals. I want to win the third one."
Djokovic is trying to go 4 for 4 at the majors over the course of one season, something last done in men’s tennis by Rod Laver 52 years ago. It was also done by Laver in 1962 and Don Budge in 1938. Three women have completed what’s known as a true Grand Slam, most recently Steffi Graf in 1988. Serena Williams’ attempt in 2015 ended at the U.S. Open with a semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci.
As Friday night’s semifinal began, the 81-year-old Laver literally was looking over Djokovic’s shoulder, seated front and center behind a baseline in the President's Box at Ashe.
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