INTERVIEW: Alexander Zverev talks with Tennis Channel's Prakash Amritraj after his three-set semifinal win over Novak Djokovic.

Advertising

Alexander Zverev and Novak Djokovic played four times in 2021, and split those matches evenly. Djokovic won the two that were held at the Grand Slams, at the Australian Open and US Open; Zverev won the two that were held at the events just below the Slams in the men’s-tennis pecking order, the Olympic Games and the ATP Finals. None of these matches were easy, none were finished in straight sets, and all, as Zverev said today, “could have gone both ways.” Saturday’s semifinal in Turin went Zverev’s way, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-3.

The German and the Serbian may not have the best rivalry in the men’s game yet—that still belongs to Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. But over the course of this season they’ve developed one of the sport’s more intriguing chess matches. The decisions that confront both men when they face each other—when to go big and when to play it safe; when to move forward and when to stay back; where to stand on the court—were on display throughout this well-played contest.

Djokovic’s decision was similar to the one he had to make against Daniil Medvedev two weeks ago in Paris: Faced with the fact that he wasn’t winning the long rallies, the way he usually does, Djokovic had to decide on the best way to shorten those rallies. Against Medvedev, he took the radical step of serving and volleying, and it worked. Against Zverev, Djokovic tried that same tactic at the end of the first set. He was successful at net, finishing the day 18 of 20 there, but he still lost the set.

So starting early in the second set, Djokovic went back to a more traditional way of attacking for him: He starting pummeling his ground strokes, especially his forehand. He didn’t throw caution to the wind or go for one-and-done winners; he worked the rallies, injected pace where he could, and moved forward when possible. That worked even better. At 4-4 in the second, Djokovic broke Zverev for the first time after constructing two brilliant points that he closed with confident smashes. Then, at 5-4, he held serve with an ace on his fifth set point. It looked as if the world No. 1 had done what world No. 1s do: taken Zverev’s best, and come up with something better.

Alexander Zverev and Novak Djokovic played four times in 2021, and split those matches evenly.

Alexander Zverev and Novak Djokovic played four times in 2021, and split those matches evenly.

But this time Djokovic couldn’t sustain his attack, and couldn’t maintain the precarious balance, between aggression and margin, that it required. Serving at 1-2 in the third set, he made two forehand errors, and sent a backhand long at break point, to go down 1-3.

Now it was Zverev’s turn to make his decision: Knowing that he would get tight trying to close out the match, how big should he go on his first and second serves? At first he went big, hitting a 133-m.p.h. second-serve ace to go up 4-1. Then, at 4-2, the nerves set in, and he decided to get conservative. He took pace off his first serve; he took a lot more pace off his second serve; and he hit ground strokes down the middle of the court.

In the end, he got lucky. Djokovic, with a chance to break, misfired on three makable forehands. Finally, Zverev relaxed, powered down another huge second serve, and held. The nerves had passed. Two games later, serving and swinging freely again, he held at love for the match.

“Once Novak gets in a rhythm on the return it’s very difficult,” Zverev told Tennis Channel. “I tried different things. I would have been happy to double fault at times, just happy not to let him get into a rhythm.”

Djokovic’s ATP season, one of his best, is over. Zverev moves on to play Medvedev in the final match of the tour year, in what may be a battle to see who goes into 2022 as the closest thing to an heir apparent to the ATP throne. Whatever happens on Sunday, Zverev has made himself into a worthy chess partner to the man who sits on that throne now.