He’s tall, he’s lean, he’s powerful. Alexander Zverev was tennis’ designated stopper.
Here, said the experts, was the man who had the best chance of any to punch a hole in history. More than any other, he might be able to halt the No. 1 player in the world’s quest to claim the first Grand Slam in 52 years.
After all, Zverev came within just two points of winning the US Open last year, and he was on a roll. He’d won 16 straight matches. He’d lifted the trophy at the Cincinnati Masters, but, more importantly, en route to his Olympic gold medal, he’d come back from 3-6, 1-3 down against Djokovic, in the Tokyo heat, to win.
At the Open, Djokovic had had numerous scares. First against a Danish rookie, then a California hopeful and finally an Italian stallion: Holger Rune, Jenson Brooksby and Matteo Berrettini. But Zverev was widely seen as the prime obstacle in Djokovic’s march to destiny.
The 6′ 6″ German had stabilized his serve. His off-court issues didn’t seem to be affecting his play. Now the man who had claimed considerable glory in Tokyo, at the ATP Finals, in Masters tournaments and at the Laver Cup seemed poised to finally have his day at a Slam. Three times on Djokovic’s serve in the opening set he carved out leads. Then in the ninth game, as Novak’s forehand wavered, the Serb hit a surprising double fault to hand Zverev a key break that enabled him to win the first set, 6-4.
But this was a familiar script. Nole had dropped the opening set in his last three matches. The New York Times’ Christopher Clarey suggested that those rooting against Nole might want to see tennis change to being a one-set affair. Others joked it was just a kind of rope-a-dope tactic. His last foe, Berrettini, told us Djokovic was energized by this first-set loss.
Right on cue, Nole followed the script. As Zverev’s serve faltered and his forehand waned, the German double-faulted to give Djokovic an early break in the second. In a flash, Novak had taken the set, 6-2. Game on! The third set gave us some of the most sublime tennis in recent memory as the two warriors battled in marathon rallies. In the ninth game there was an almost endless, mesmerizing point of 53 strokes that lasted a minute and 18 seconds. Finally the German hit a forehand to prevail. He won the point, yet would soon lose the third set.
But Zverev is a Slam winner in the making. He refused to back down. He reignited his forehand, hit a fabulous defensive lob and, on an early break point, blasted a forehand down the line to break. John McEnroe said it was “one of the best games Zverev has ever played.”
The German went on to claim the fourth set, to set up what a roaring Ashe Stadium crowd presumed would be an electrifying fifth set. The question was clear: could Zverev put his Arthur Ashe Stadium ghost behind him? He recently admitted he still feels the pain of last year’s shortfall. Could the German put a wrench in the Djokovician gears of history?
It was not to be. Nole knows how to win in so many ways. He hit a wonderful drop shot and then a masterly forehand pass to go up 2-0. Later, the flummoxed German would flub an overhead and then stand frozen, his hands on his hips, his disbelief and frustration clear. Djokovic was a force, a power, that Zverev just could not mute. Here, on full display, we saw the art of the tennis war before our eyes: defense to offense, down-the-line backhands, surprisingly effective serves and a fighting spirit like few others. To his credit, Zverev broke back. But it was far too late.
Alexander would tell the press that early in the fifth set, “I played extremely ungreat, while Novak stepped up on breakpoints and served big. Mentally I would rather play against any other player but him…He’s No. 1 in the world for a reason.” Zverev said Nole going for the Grand Slam is great, and he thinks the Serb will do it.
As for the triumphant Djokovic, he told the crowd this was “the best atmosphere of the tournament…These are the opportunities we dream of, and look to when we need motivation.” He confided he’d had “a hurricane, a tornado of emotions on court – you are out there all alone…Over the years I’ve developed a formula to deal with it. There are many things that I combine. Tennis is very beautiful and very demanding…I’ve been blessed and I’m very grateful.”
As for his showdown on Sunday with another 6’ 6” warrior who’s fallen short at a US Open, No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, he confided, “I’m going to put my heart, body and soul into the match and treat that next match like it is the last one of my career.”
He then said he felt just like Kobe Bryant, who, when his team was one game short of an NBA championship asked, “Why should I be happy now?”