– Novak Djokovic might not agree, but after 52 years of vigilance among the men, you want the Grand Slam to be worthy of the wait.
You want it to not only be inspiring, but devilishly difficult, with opponents throwing heart, soul, and full forehands to stop the quest.
You want, in essence, games like Djokovic’s Friday night semi-final at the US Open against Alexander Zverev. Five rounds of thorny questions answered and breaking points saved in which, as so often in the most important moments, Djokovic found a way to impose his game and his will.
“He plays the best tennis when he needs it, which a lot of players don’t,” Zverev said.
Djokovic was calm, unusually calm, as he sorted it all out again, sifting through risk-reward ratios, making tactical changes and, most importantly, refusing to miss the most important points. Full concentration was required, as the danger of his Grand Slam hitting the rocks was real, just as it will be on Sunday when he faces Daniil Medvedev, another taller and much younger opponent, in the final.
Djokovic, a man who enjoys chewing grass after winning Wimbledon, is close enough to taste his 21st Grand Slam singles title, which would break his tie with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the men’s record. But the brightest prize at this point is the Grand Slam: winning all four major singles titles in the same season.
Nadal and Federer, for all their gifts and enduring excellence, have never come together. Djokovic is one game away, which comes as no surprise to Open officials, who long ago recruited Rod Laver to come to New York to hand over the trophy on Sunday.
Laver, an Australian southpaw nicknamed Rocket, finished the Grand Slam in 1962 as an amateur and in 1969 as a professional. No man has done it since. Her red hair has long since turned gray. He’s 83 and still has a passion for the game, and he was prominent in the President’s dressing room on Friday, just as he will be on Sunday.
“I’m going to treat the next game like it’s the last game of my career,” Djokovic told ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe in his on-field interview on Friday.
It would have been more symbolic if Nadal or Federer had tried to prevent Djokovic from clearing the last hurdle. But a champion can only play the opposition they face, and while Nadal and Federer have both been sidelined at this late stage with injuries, it only underscores Djokovic’s resilience and longevity. .
Staying healthy enough to keep winning is part of the equation of greatness, of challenge, and it’s been left to Djokovic, still No.1, to keep the next generation in New York.
So far, everything is going well against the best talent available: Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini in the quarter-finals and 2021 Olympic gold medalist Zverev in the semi-final.
“Look, there’s a reason he’s won 20 Grand Slam tournaments, and there’s a reason he’s spent the most weeks at world No.1,” Zverev said. “I think mentally he’s the best player to ever play the game. Mentally in the most important moments. I prefer to play against anyone other than him.
Djokovic, who knows Zverev well as both are based in Monte Carlo, can sense the apprehension of the opposition and draw strength from it.
“Probably all of those big games that I’ve won, big titles over the years, have kind of built that kind of aura around me that players know there’s a spirit of never dying with me. , especially when I play in Grand Slam, “he said. “They know that until the last blow things can change, which has been the case several times in my career. So I’m glad my opponents think of me that way. I want them to feel like they’re under extreme pressure when I face them on a big Grand Slam stage.
Djokovic was not always a rock. Early in his career, he had a reputation for frequently taking injury timeouts and withdrawing from games. In 2008 at the US Open, American star Andy Roddick mocked Djokovic at a press conference by reciting a mostly fictitious laundry list of his ailments, including both ankles, “one back and a hip, cramps, bird flu, anthrax, SARS, joint and cold cough. “
Did Djokovic bluff during matches?
Roddick objected. “If it’s there, it’s there,” he said. “There are just a lot. Either he quickly calls a trainer or he’s the bravest guy ever. I think it’s up to you to decide.
This exchange seems to be ancient history. Djokovic addressed his stamina issues and breathing difficulties with two surgeries for a deviated septum and a switch in 2010 to a gluten-free diet, largely plant-based.
He’s become an ironman, and more than a decade later, the younger ones still can’t keep up. After beating Zverev, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2, Djokovic’s five-set record is a phenomenal 36-10.
The last man who can stop the Grand Slam is Medvedev, 25, a skinny, trilingual Russian who is ranked No.2 and is at his best on the hard courts.
He lost the 2019 US Open final in five sets to Nadal, and Medvedev’s sparkling form early in this season made many expect another classic game when he faced Djokovic in the final of the Australian Open.
Instead, Djokovic won, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2, shattering the game and the spirit of Medvedev after a tight first set. But Medvedev, who has won 14 of his last 15 matches, had a more restful journey to the final in New York than Djokovic, losing just one set to six for Djokovic.
“I’m going to give all I have left on Sunday, and I have a lot left,” Medvedev said after beating Felix Auger-Aliassime in straight sets.
Medvedev has beaten Djokovic three times in best of three sets matches, but never in best of five format. Opinions are divided on the approach to be adopted. McEnroe, a former United States Davis Cup captain who was on the pitch for ESPN on Friday, believes Medvedev has to “overcome the patience” of Djokovic.
“It seemed to me that Medvedev was out in Australia and was like, ‘I’m going to beat this guy,’ but he’s not hitting hard enough to beat him,” McEnroe said. “He has to outsmart it, which I think he can do. I think he has shooting tolerance. The question is, does he have the courage? You must be prepared to go to the wall in any way, in any form, and not only play your best strategic game, but be physically prepared to suffer like you have never suffered before.
What is clear is that Medvedev, in his third major final, is no longer content with just running a deep race. He wants his first Grand Slam title far more than he cares about preventing Djokovic’s Grand Slam.
“It is true that there is a lot at stake for him, and while it may put a lot of pressure on him, knowing him the pressure will make him stronger,” Medvedev said. “I’m just going to give it my all, and I’m sure not going to think about the middle of the game if I win that ‘OK, I’m ruining the record he’s trying to break.’ It’s only the game that matters to me.
Djokovic will also try to focus on the game and only the game while acknowledging that this means ignoring the elephant in the stadium.
“I know we want to talk about history; I know it’s at stake, ”he said on Friday night. “Sure, I’m aware of that, but I’m just trying to lock in what I know that works for me. I have my routines. I have my people. I isolate myself. I am gathering all the energy needed for the next battle, only the next game.
Difficult to bet against him at this point. After having rolled in the big ones, Federer and Nadal. After looking down from so much pressure. Then he added dimensions to his game, like the drop shots which were often so effective against Zverev on Friday.
But the Grand Slam has long been the steepest hill in tennis to climb, and it will be difficult to block it with Laver in front and in the middle and Djokovic so close to something so rare.
But then, shouldn’t a Grand Slam be hard, very hard, after 52 years of waiting?
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.