Yesterday, ATPTour.com looked at three of the five best Grand Slam matches of 2021. Now, continuing our review of the 2021 season, we will look back at the top two Grand Slam clashes of the year, featuring hard-fought victories for Novak Djokovic.
2) US Open, SF, Novak Djokovic d. Alexander Zverev 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2
All season long, as the pressure and tension mounted, Novak Djokovic remained remarkably poised as he hurtled toward history.
He had won his eighth Australian Open to open the major season, then taken the titles at Roland Garros — beating 13-time Rafael Nadal along the way — and Wimbledon. Thus, he entered the US Open with almost unimaginable possibilities: a Grand Slam not seen in men’s tennis since 1969 and the chance to pass Roger Federer and Nadal with an unprecedented 21st major championship.
But the obstacle was formidable. For six weeks earlier, Alexander Zverev – in another match laced with historic implications – had beaten Djokovic in the semi-finals of the Tokyo Olympics. Zverev erased a one-set deficit by winning 12 of the last 16 games (and then continued on to beat Karen Khachanov in the final). That deprived the 34-year-old Serbian of a chance for an exceedingly rare Golden Slam.
And so it was, appropriately, World No. 1 versus No. 4 in the season’s last major semi-final. Djokovic, perhaps feeling the weight of expectation, did not start well in Arthur Ashe Stadium. For the fourth straight match, just as he had against Kei Nishikori, Jenson Brooksby and Matteo Berrettini, Djokovic dropped the first set. Zverev, a decade younger, looked far fresher.
For the 10th time in 27 major matches, Djokovic was forced to rally from a one-set deficit at the start. Elevating his game, he took the next two sets – the third featured a ludicrous 53-stroke rally – before the German leveled the match with an impeccable fourth. It was Zverev’s lethal serve that got him there, even against the man many people view as the best returner ever.
With Rod Laver, the player who had achieved the last Grand Slam in men’s tennis, watching from the President’s Suite, Djokovic displayed the righteous stuff of a champion. A classic drop shot followed by a whistling forehand pass broke Zverev’s serve for a 2-0 lead. A framed would-be overhead gave Djokovic an insurmountable 4-0 lead – and he responded with a roar in the direction of his team.
Photo Credit: Sarah Stier/Getty Images
After three hours, 43 minutes his dazzling quest remained alive. Djokovic had now won all 27 of his major matches for the season and was 4-0 when it went to a deciding fifth set.
“I would like to say thank you, because the atmosphere was amazing, the best atmosphere of the tournament so far,” Djokovic said in his on-court interview. “These are the moments we live for. These are the kind of unique opportunities that we dream of every day when we wake up and are trying to find motivation to go out there and do the same things over and over again.”
Daniil Medvedev would end Djokovic’s historic pursuit in the final at Flushing Meadows with a comprehensive straight-sets performance.
1) Roland Garros, SF, Novak Djokovic d. Rafael Nadal 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2
The 58th instalment in one of the greatest rivalries of all time well and truly delivered on the hype when World No. 1 Djokovic squared off against 13-time Roland Garros champion Nadal in the semi-finals in Paris.
Esteemed coach and commentator Darren Cahill deemed it “one of the very best matches I’ve seen”, while Andy Murray declared “you cannot play better clay-court tennis than this. It’s perfect”. After four hours and 11 minutes, the Serbian prevailed 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2.
“It was one of these matches you can remember forever. It was one of the top three matches in my life,” Djokovic said. “To win against Rafa on this court you have to play your best tennis, and tonight I played my best tennis.
“It’s hard to find the words to sum up how I feel. You tell yourself there is no pressure but there is. Pressure is a privilege – to test my game and my character in matches like this.”
Only seven months prior, Nadal had allowed the top seed just seven games in the 2020 final – including a 6-0 opening set – and when the Spaniard charged to an early 5-0 lead in their 2021 rematch, there was a worrying sense of déjà vu for Djokovic.
The numbers were already daunting. Nadal had fallen on clay in the French capital just twice before from 107 matches in 16 years. He was a perfect 26-0 once he reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros and had won 35 straight matches there.
Although Djokovic conceded the opening set, he had already steadied the ship as he won three straight games, saved six set points and two break points before his opponent took it 6-3. It was a small but telling momentum shift as the Serbian levelled the match at a set apiece before the showdown reached its shot-making crescendo in a gruelling 92-minute third set, in which the pair shared 37 winners.
One of the very best matches I’ve seen. Well done to Novak and Rafa. Brilliant tennis.
Massive props to Nole after digging himself out of a 0/5 hole in that 1st set.
Djokovic vs Tsitsipas for the 2021 RG title ?
— Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill) June 11, 2021
Nadal pegged back a 3-5 deficit and held a set point against Djokovic’s serve at 6-5, before being denied in a tie-break. Such was the magnitude of the match, French authorities made an exception to their Covid-19 pandemic night curfew and allowed spectators to stay until the match’s completion.
The clash looked destined for a fifth set when Nadal jumped to an early 2-0 lead in the fourth set, but Djokovic again showed extraordinary mental resolve as he reeled off six straight games to seal a definitive triumph in the pair’s ATP Head2Head rivalry, which he now leads 30-28.
— Andy Murray (@andy_murray) June 11, 2021
“I had the big chance with set point at 6-5 on his second serve. That’s it. Anything could happen in that moment,” Nadal said. “Then I made a double fault and missed an easy volley in the tie-break. These kind of mistakes can happen. But if you want to win, you can’t make these mistakes.”
It was Djokovic’s first clay-court win over Nadal since the 2016 quarter-finals in Rome and made him the first man to defeat the Spaniard twice at Roland Garros. No player had beaten Nadal in Paris and gone on to claim the trophy, but that was achieved two days later against Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Victory meant Djokovic closed to within one title of tying Nadal’s and Federer’s record haul of 20 majors, which he went on to do at Wimbledon.
Read more from our Best of 2021 series here.