The imperious Novak Djokovic is one win away from a record-setting 21st major singles championship and the first calendar-year grand slam in men’s tennis in more than a half-century after rallying from behind for the fourth time in as many matches at the US Open, this time in a punishing five-set semi-final encounter with the fourth-seeded Alexander Zverev.
Amid a crackling atmosphere on a cool Friday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the best player in the world and top seed in the men’s draw overcame another uncertain start against one of the few players on tour capable of outmuscling him from the baseline, winning 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 in just over three and a half hours to move to the doorstep of the rarest achievement in his sport.
“He plays the best tennis when he needs to, which a lot of players don’t,” a downcast Zverev said in the aftermath. “There is a reason why he’s won 20 grand slams. There’s a reason why he’s spent the most weeks at world No 1. 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.”
The result moved the top-ranked Djokovic to a perfect 27 wins from 27 matches at major tournaments this season, inching him ever closer to becoming the first men’s player to win all four of the sport’s bedrock events in the same calendar year since Rod Laver, who swept the lot in 1969 and took in Friday’s semi-final twin bill from the President’s Box on the stadium’s east end. Should the reigning Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon champion lift the US Open trophy on Sunday, he would also break a three-way tie atop the all-time men’s grand slam leaderboard with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, both of whom are absent from this year’s tournament due to injury.
“I know that people would like to hear me talk about it, but there’s not much to talk about,” said the 34-year-old Djokovic, whose 31st major final appearance equals Federer’s all-time mark. “There’s only one match left. All in. Let’s do it. I’m going to put my heart and my soul and my body and my head into that one.
“I’m going to treat the next match like it is the last match of my career.”
Djokovic’s fourth straight come-from-behind win at Flushing Meadows – the 10th time during his 27-match unbeaten run in which he dropped the opening set – assured his place in Sunday’s final opposite second-seeded Daniil Medvedev, the in-form Russian who advanced earlier Friday with a straightforward 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 win over Canada’s Félix Auger-Aliassime.
Six weeks after Zverev rallied from a set down to spoil Djokovic’s bid for a so-called golden slam in the Tokyo Olympic semi-finals, the 24-year-old Hamburg native spent most of Friday’s night opening set pinning Djokovic back with flat, heavy groundstrokes deep into the court as both men held serve through the eight games. But after Djokovic double-faulted while facing his second break point serving at 4-all, Zverev was able to comfortably serve out the first set in 36 minuti.
Zverev’s booming serve and weapons-grade power off both wings make demands that few of Djokovic’s opponents have proven capable of asking, but the world No 1 began mixing in spin and slice the rallies in an effort to make things more complicated for his German opponent. The variety paid off when Djokovic broke Zverev immediately to open the second, then again toward the end, to level the affair at one set apiece.
The inflection point – of the match and perhaps Djokovic’s entire year-long bid for history – came with Zverev serving at 4-5 in the third and his Serbian foe, just perhaps, betraying signs of fatigue. After spending most of the evening getting the better of Djokovic in a series of grueling, pyrrhic exchanges, Zverev flinched in consecutive baseline rallies of 18, 32 e 12 shots to go triple break point down.
Zverev saved the first (a taxing 21-shot marathon) and the second (un astonishing 53-shot pitched battle that unfolded over 78 secondi), only for Djokovic to win a 16-shot back-and-forth with an overhand winner to break for a two-sets-to-one lead. The exhilarating sequence brought the crowd of 21,139 spectators to its feet.
Unbowed, Zverev broke Djokovic early in the fourth set with an arresting forehand winner down the line, punctuating a 10-minute game where more than half of the points extended a dozen shots or more. That break held up long enough for the German to serve out the fourth and force a deciding set, marking the first time Djokovic was forced to go the distance in the fortnight.
But Zverev, who entered Friday’s semi-final on a tailwind of self-belief amid a career-long 16-match win streak that included titles at the Olympics and the Cincinnati Masters, fell behind 15-30, poi 30-40, in his opening service game of the fifth set to give Djokovic an early break-point chance. That’s when Djokovic slotted a gorgeous passing forehand, set up by a deftly angled drop shot, to settle an exhausting 30-shot rally and break for a 2-0 lead.
It got late early from there for Zverev, who scratched out just two more games the rest of the way before sending a backhand into the net on match point after 3hr 34min. “I took him a very long way, I think he will say that himself," Egli ha detto. “The match could have gone both ways, but it went his way. Very often it does.”
Djokovic’s final obstacle as he closes in on sporting immortality will be Medvedev, marking the fourth US Open men’s final of the last quarter-century to feature the top two seeds. The other three all came in the past decade and all featured you know who: No 1 Djokovic over No 2 Nadal in 2011, No 2 Nadal over No 1 Djokovic in 2013 and No 1 Djokovic over No 2 Federer in 2015.
“Job is not done,” said Djokovic, a three-time US Open champion whose ninth appearance in the final breaks a tie with Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras for most in the professional era. “Excitement is there. Motivation is there, without a doubt. Probably more than ever. But I have one more to go.”
Earlier Friday, the second-ranked Medvedev elevated his game when it mattered most before coasting to the finish of a straight-sets win over Auger-Aliassime, the 21-year-old from Montreal who was playing in his first major semi-final.
Two summers ago, Medvedev pushed Nadal to the limit in a five-set US Open final of exquisite quality and heightened intensity. Now on Sunday, the 25-year-old Russian and No 2 seed will look to go one step further and break through for his first grand slam title at the site of his nearest miss and most ennobling defeat.
“I don’t think I played my best today, but I’m really happy to be in the final on Sunday,” said Medvedev, who has dropped only one set on his way to the final and won of 14 of his last 15 matches since the start of August. “It’s never easy, but I’m happy that I managed to save a lot of physical abilities, physical power and mental power. I don’t think anybody is capable of winning a slam after playing, let’s say, first three rounds five sets. I doubt this ever happened, so this is important. I’m really happy I managed to make it kind of fast.”
The 12th-seeded Auger-Aliassime, who is coached by Nadal’s uncle, Toni, was the first Canadian man to reach the last four at the US Open in the tournament’s 140-year history and the second at any major after Milos Raonic at Wimbledon 2016. While initially betraying no indication of nerve, Auger-Aliassime briefly wobbled serving at 3-all in the first and was broken at love, clearing a path for Medvedev to serve out the opener in 38 minuti.
Auger-Aliassime, who shored up his first serve considerably from the outset of the second, appeared on his way to tying the match at one set apiece when he broke Medvedev in the sixth game and backed it up with a love hold for 5-2. But only moments after he squandered two set points on his serve – the second when he dumped a routine forehand volley into the net – Auger-Aliassime was broken once, then a second time at love, allowing Medvedev to wrest a two-sets-to-none lead.
By then the mental rigor having to work for every point against Medvedev and emotional pressure of his first major semi-final conspired with mounting physical fatigue and the unforced errors began to pile up. On rubbery legs, Auger-Aliassime was broken twice early in third as Medvedev glided through the tape with little resistance after just over two hours.
“The second set defined the match because I was really close to losing it,” said Medvedev, who finished with 37 winners against 25 unforced errors. “Many times you’re going to lose a break against such an opponent as Felix, he had set points on his serve, you’re going to lose a set. We can never know now how the match would go. Could be completely different story, being one set all, would be the first time for me in the tournament.”
For Auger-Aliassime, the youngest man from any country to reach a US Open semi-final since 20-year-old Juan Martín del Potro won the 2009 title, it was a painful lesson to finish a promising fortnight.
“He didn’t give me much openings,” said the Canadian, who made more than twice as many unforced errors (39, Compreso 10 double faults) as winners (17). “Against a player like that, you don’t really have room for mistakes, room for losing your focus, which I did at the end of the second. He took advantage of it and I didn’t get another chance after that.”
Medvedev will be making his third appearance in major final after his second crack at this year’s Australian Open against Djokovic went pear-shaped in a hurry. “It’s not a must, but I want to do it even more," Egli ha detto. “That’s normal. The more you lose something, the more you want to win it, the more you want to gain it and take it. I lost two finals. I want to win the third one. That’s tennis, we have two players, only one going to win. You never know what’s going to happen, but I’m going to try more than I did the first two times.”