In the semifinals of the US Open it comes to the renewed exchange of blows between Alexander Zverev and Novak Djokovic.
Alexander Zverev knew it even before the US Open: "Novak Djokovic is the one to beat," the German had declared on Eurosport at the start of the tournament. Now, given the Serb’s dominance this year, this realization is not necessarily groundbreaking, but on Saturday night the moment of truth actually strikes for Zverev now. Because the Olympic champion will face the world number one in the semifinals and must try to put his words into action.
Djokovic’s 26 matches in the Grand Slam tournaments so far have shown how difficult this is in 2021. The 34-year-old tennis dominator has won them all, two more victories and he once again makes history. Djokovic would have been the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the Grand Slam – i.e., titles at the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open in one year. In addition, the triumph in Flushing Meadows would be tantamount to the 21. Grand Slam success for him, Djokovic would then be the sole record holder.
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"Of course I know that I can make history. That also motivates me. But if I think about it too much, it weighs me down mentally," Djokovic said after his four-set quarterfinal win over Italy’s Matteo Berrettini. And that even perhaps the mentally strongest player in tennis history can certainly get into a rut once in a while is something his upcoming opponent knows perfectly well.
Because at the Tokyo Olympics, it was Alexander Zverev who shattered Djokovic’s dream of a "Golden Slam" and was able to prevail in the semifinals after clearly trailing the match. "I was the first player to beat him in a really big match this year," Zverev said after his emphatic quarterfinal win over South Africa’s Lloyd Harris, adding:. "That does something to you."
The big question now before the renewed duel is: what does it do to Djokovic? He will not have forgotten the last defeat – his only one in the past four months. And he knows that Zverev has the game and even more so the form to defeat him once again. The German came close at this year’s Australian Open, but lost in four sets in the quarterfinals.
Back then, Zverev lacked conviction in the decisive situations, but that has changed since his gold coup in Tokyo. "That’s the biggest sporting event in the world, that was the Olympics," he now explained again and continued. "To win there against the number one in the world after I was actually already out of the match and then to come back was a unique experience and really something very special for me."
So far Zverev has hardly been challenged in New York
Zverev then went on to win the Masters tournament in Cincinnati and is now unbeaten in 16 matches. The prerequisites for finally beating a major at a Grand Slam could hardly be better. And yet there on the other side of the net is Novak Djokovic. "Against him you have to play perfectly, otherwise you can’t win," Zverev explained, well aware that "most of the time you can’t play perfectly at all". That’s why so many opponents would lose to Djokovic. "You have to win the match yourself and dominate the rallies, making few mistakes," Zverev knows.
So far he has hardly been challenged in New York, but on the other hand he has also saved strength. With his service he can unnerve even Djokovic, at the US Open so far it is a bank for the 24-year-old from Hamburg. In the semifinals, he will again need around 70 percent of his first serves to take the initiative himself. The length of his groundstrokes will also be important, in Tokyo he kept putting Djokovic under pressure with precise balls to the lines.
At the Olympics, however, the Serb seemed a little tired, but he has since come back to operating temperature, even if his performances in New York were not always sovereign and he was often slow to find his way into the matches. In the end, however, it was the same as always: Djokovic always had the longer breath and the greater willpower.
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There are no more secrets before the now tenth duel against each other. "I know his game very well," Djokovic acknowledged, instead turning the focus to another aspect of the match: "It’s a semifinal. Nerves are also involved," he said. And none has better than him. Normally. Alexander Zverev will want to test this, after all, he knew before the tournament that the only way to the title at the US Open is through Novak Djokovic.