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The Olympics seemed to be a natural stumbling block for Novak Djokovic on his quest for an unprecedented men’s Golden Slam. The reason? Not the quick turnaround time from Roland Garros and Wimbledon; not the change from clay and grass to hard courts, or the particular qualities of the surface at Tokyo’s Ariake Tennis Park; not the fan-less, Covid-impacted circumstances that surround these Summer Games.

Rather, it was the format: best-of-three sets—meaning that Djokovic’s opponent needed to get hot for only two sets in order to win.

For the first four rounds, Djokovic was a water cannon, extinguishing flames before they even began to threaten his chances at a career-altering gold medal. He won all eight of his sets, none with a margin less than 6-4. His most recent result was a 6-2, 6-0 drubbing of Japan’s Kei Nishikori. He had been broken just once all event.

Leading Alexander Zverev by a set and a break in the second set on Friday night—6-1, 3-2—another snuffing appeared to be in the offing. A few points earlier, it was Zverev’s racquet being slammed on the ground, and Djokovic’s yell of encouragement filling the relatively empty arena with sound.

Novak Djokovic seemed all but into the gold-medal match before things took a stunning turn in Tokyo.

Novak Djokovic seemed all but into the gold-medal match before things took a stunning turn in Tokyo.

But 21 points later—17 of them won by a renewed Zverev—and the German was suddenly 50 percent of the way to an unlikely victory.

“[It’s] very different from playing a major, where it’s three out of five [sets],” said Chanda Rubin on the Olympic Channel broadcast. “Zverev’s got to feel like he’s got a good shot now.”

He must have felt even better after winning his sixth consecutive game for a 2-0 third-set lead, one in which Zverev saved four break points. He then took a 0-30 lead on Djokovic’s serve, and would go to on to break the world No. 1 for a fourth straight time for 3-0, and he consolidated for 4-0.

Zverev, whose second serve has long been a liability, was serving aces to keep Djokovic at bay. He was brilliant during rallies, out-pacing and out-thinking Djokovic, who looked to be caught in his own head. He was, simply put, playing the role of Djokovic, who has earned some of his greatest victories from precarious positions.

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Forehands, backhands and serves: Alexander Zverev rocketed them all in one of the best stretches of tennis he's ever played.

Forehands, backhands and serves: Alexander Zverev rocketed them all in one of the best stretches of tennis he's ever played.

Djokovic finally stopped the bleeding with a hold for 4-1—and when he got to 30-all in the next game, it felt like a potential turning point. Give the Serbian an inch, and he’ll take a mile.

But a confident overhead smash by Zverev, who never appeared to feel the pressure of what was at stake, quickly restored his order.

“That might be the point that gets him to the finish line,” Darren Cahill said on commentary. “He’s taking this away from Djokovic.”

Zverev won the game a point later with a snapping crosscourt forehand. And a game later, it was a forehand of the down-the-line variety that took it all away from Djokovic, and took Zverev to the gold medal match.

"It's one of the biggest achievements in my career," Zverev said after his medal-clinching win.

"It's one of the biggest achievements in my career," Zverev said after his medal-clinching win.

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After the match, Brad Gilbert called Zverev’s performance the biggest upset in tennis since Roberta Vinci’s calendar-year-Slam-denying win over Serena Williams at the 2015 US Open.

As for Zverev, whose emotions came to the fore after his final forehand, he acknowledged what he said heading into the match: that only his best tennis would do.

“I just told myself I'm going to swing,” said Zverev—who will face Karen Khachanov in the final—about what he felt when trailing by a set and a break. “Before I was trying to play nice tennis, outlasting Novak, which you can’t do on a hard court, especially when he’s playing well. So after that I thought I’m going to use my power even more, I’m going to try to hit the ball as hard as I can, and yeah, that worked out well.”

Djokovic’s Olympics are not over; he’ll face Pablo Carreno Busta for a bronze medal, and he’s still alive in the mixed doubles event. [Editor's note: Djokovic would go on to lose in mixed with Nina Stojanovic, 7-6 (4), 7-5.] But it remains to be seen how his loss in singles—and the humidity in Tokyo—will affect him.

“I beat a man who, this year, seems impossible to beat at a big event,” said Zverev. “He’s the greatest player of all time.”