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In Tokyo, Zverev broke through Djokovic’s wall of invincibility, while Rublev and Pavlyuchenkova reminded us why they play the Olympic Games
This year the mixed brought two popular and personable Russians together for the first time.
Published Aug 02, 2021
Tennis Channel Live: What is tennis' place in the Olympics?
Twelve games into Novak Djokovic’s Olympic semifinal against Alexander Zverev on Friday, it looked as if it was going to be business as usual for the world No. 1. He had won the first set 6-1. He was serving at 3-2 in the second set. He had hit two excellent returns to break. And he had just watched Zverev take a ball and bash it out of the arena in futile rage. Yes, Djokovic was sweating a lot. Yes, he looked a little weary and irritated. But who would have dared to predict that he would lose the next nine points, 10 of the next 11 games, and the match? Who would have dared to believe that Djokovic, instead of storming through the next leg of the Golden Slam, would leave Tokyo without a medal?
Djokovic will continue to be the story of the 2021 men’s season. He won’t win the Golden Slam, but he could win the calendar-year Grand Slam, which is still Holy Grail territory. But a sub-theme of that story has changed with his loss to Zverev. Until that match, Djokovic had kept the ATP’s Next Generation safely, if not comfortably, at bay this season. His three Slam-final wins had come against Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Matteo Berrettini. On Friday, in one 10-game swoop, Zverev broke through that wall of invincibility, scored a win for the young guns, and put the clash of the generations back in play.
When the Olympics began, I liked Zverev’s chances to medal. He has won big best-of-three events in the past. He likes hard courts. And he had been played too well in 2021 not to come up with an important result at some point. Zverev wasn’t quite ready, mentally, to close out the US Open final last year, but an Olympic gold seemed to be the logical next step for him.
Now he has that gold, and the biggest win of his career. He has it because, once he fell behind against Djokovic, he loosened up and let his ground strokes fly. He has it because he served too well even for Djokovic to break him in the second half of the match. He has it because he left his passive, chess-match style behind and played attacking tennis. He has it because he didn’t let nerves get the better of him when the gold medal was in sight. In the Open final last year, Zverev let a two-set lead slip. Against Karen Khachanov in the gold-medal match on Sunday, he played his toughest, most aggressive game when he was already up a set and 3-0.
Instead of Djokovic winning the first Golden Slam since Steffi Graf did it in 1988, Zverev became the first German tennis player to win an Olympic gold since Fraulein Forehand that year.
“This is so much bigger than anything in the tennis world—in the sports world,” Zverev said. “There’s nothing better than this. You’re playing for everybody involved. This is not only for yourself; this is for everybody.”
Looked at in an individual light, Zverev’s win is a step forward for a player who has been touted, but no less an authority than Rafael Nadal, as a future No. 1 and face of the men’s game. Once upon a time, the sport would have been happy to see him in this spotlight, but in 2021 he presents a more problematic figure. Zverev the player accomplished much this week, but the allegations of abuse made last year by his former girlfriend Olya Sharypova are also part of his story. They make it hard to know what to think of Zverev the person, or the prospect of him taking up more of the sport’s spotlight in the future.
But that obviously wasn’t true for all of the gold medalists in Tokyo. One of the beauties of the tennis competition at the Games is how it puts doubles and mixed doubles on the same plane, or nearly the same plane, of significance as the singles events. This year the mixed brought two popular and personable Russians, Andrey Rublev and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, together for the first time. Their 13-11 super-tiebreak win over countrymen Elena Vesnina and Aslan Karatsev in the gold-medal match was the tensest 20 minutes of the tournament, and their celebration as joyous as any.
Earlier in the tournament, Rublev had called himself a “loser” for having to play mixed after exiting in singles, but he wasn’t feeling that way when it was all over.
“We won in this ending, it’s beyond words,” Rublev said. “At that moment, your whole life flashes before your eyes: How you grew up, how you trained, how you watched the Olympic Games on TV. And now it’s happening to us. A total euphoria.”
“This is a childhood dream come true,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “Yes, not in singles, but the medal is gold, and we are the Olympic champions!”
Rublev and Pavlyuchenkova, because of Covid protocols, put their gold medals around each other’s necks, and had their smiles covered by face masks. And because Russia has been technically banned from the Olympics because of the Sochi doping scandal of 2014, a musical piece by Tchaikovsky, rather the Russian national anthem, was played during their medal ceremony. But seeing a male and female athlete sharing that dream-come-true moment together—and smiling as hard as they could with their eyes—was enough to make me forget about the problems and scandals that have plagued the Olympics for a few minutes. This is why they play the game, and the Games.