There was less of the exuberant energy that fizzled out once the draw of the US Open was released two weeks ago. And who could argue? From the absence of icons to its defending champion, this US Open has robbed us of a parting gift of tennis’ greatest era. But even in this bittersweet moment, this has been a refreshingly good tournament.
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic’s unquenchable pursuit towards immortality is gathering pace. We may have witnessed a glimpse of the future with our own eyes in the form of Carlos Alcaraz–the Spanish teenager who reached the quarterfinals. Then there was a hushed-up breakthrough of the unheralded Botic van de Zandshulp, who reached the last eight as a qualifier.
Now with just two more rounds to crown this year’s champion, the question on everyone’s mind is whether there will be one more twist to the tale.
Zverev Looks to Inflict First Grand Slam Defeat of 2021 on Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic targets a perfect 28 at Grand Slams this season. Victory over Matteo Berrettini on Thursday made it 26 wins under his belt. Should he beat Alexander Zverev and then either Daniil Medvedev or Felix Auger-Aliassime, he will complete an unprecedented set in his trophy-laden cabinet.
Since 1969, no man has achieved the Calendar Year Grand Slam. Djokovic is the closest to emulate Rod Laver, who was the last male player to do it. And to put Djokovic’s achievements in the spotlight, he has already done three-quarters of the work. His great rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have never won the first three Majors in a single season.
In the two months preceding the Olympics, Djokovic barely had a caesura of rest. His French Open and Wimbledon triumphs were just two weeks apart. By the time he arrived in Tokyo, he was clearly a spent force. An energy-sapping semifinal defeat to Alexander Zverev ended his bid for a Gold Medal. And less than 24 hours later, he wilted and caved in during the Bronze Medal match against Pablo Carreno Busta.
That chaotic week in Japan’s capital necessitated a one-month break from tennis. By his own admission, the three-time US Open champion needed to prolong his rest for the most important tournament in the American summer.
Zverev, meanwhile, has grown in confidence and maturity during the past couple of months. He won an Olympic gold medal and took home the Cincinnati title on his return to the American hard courts. The German has maintained that terrific form with five more wins at Flushing Meadows taking his tally to 16 straight wins.
However, the 24-year-old has a major roadblock in his path as he attempts to win his first Grand Slam title.
Can Zverev Actually Do It?
At this point, we can safely assume Djokovic’s champagne is on ice. In spite of his Olympics loss to Zverev, Djokovic is as clear as daylight the overwhelming favorite to defeat the German on Friday. But even a nonchalant Djokovic has shown signs of vulnerability this past week. He has dropped a set in four of his five matches.
Djokovic survived his first acid test in the quarterfinals when he took down the power-hitting Berrettini in four sets. In a way, the top seed warmed up nicely for the Zverev encounter, given that both players pack a powerful serve and forehand. Zverev, however, is marginally better and plays with precision groundstrokes off both wings. His serve continues to be a hallmark of his blossoming game. And his backhand which has gone under the microscope is also another key feature of his game. Compared with other players this fortnight, his backhand is faster, flatter, and lower over the net.
The German’s rapidly improving crosscourt backhand may not trouble Djokovic too much considering the Serbian’s very own stellar backhand. But this pattern of play will certainly be fascinating to watch.
If Zverev was looking for respite in his quarterfinal against Lloyd Harris, then his straight-set win was not as straightforward. Instead, it turned out to be a real barometer of his title ambitions. Harris, as you recall, served for the set at 5-3, and then again at 6-5 in the tiebreaker. But after his spectacular implosion, he never quite got his bearings right.
So often at the most prestigious events this season, or any other season in the past decade, Djokovic tends to be an immovable object in most players’ journeys. Needless to say, Novak Djokovic rarely blinks in the face of history.
Main Photo from Getty.