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Before his 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 loss to Novak Djokovic in the US Open semifinals on Friday, Alexander Zverev said that anyone who wanted to have a chance of stopping the world No. 1 in his bid for a calendar-year Grand Slam had to be “perfect.” His words proved prescient, because Zverev was just about everything you could ask in this match, but he wasn’t perfect.

He won the first set by bombing in 82 percent of his first serves and winning 94 percent of those points. After Djokovic ran him ragged by the end of the third set, and seemed to have closed the door on his upset bid, Zverev responded with what might have been the best set of his career. He won the type of long, exhausting rallies that almost no one wins against Djokovic. He rifled a forehand winner to break serve. He didn’t face any break points himself. He had Djokovic staring at his player box in stone-faced disbelief for an entire changeover.

Zverev kept up with Djokovic in rallies, terminating many with his heavy forehand.

Zverev kept up with Djokovic in rallies, terminating many with his heavy forehand.

But it wasn’t enough. Zverev’s crucial error came in the opening game of the fifth set. Throughout this tournament, Djokovic has been losing sets, and then breaking serve right away, stopping his opponents’ momentum cold. Zverev must have been aware of the pattern, because he suddenly tightened up at the start of the fifth. At 15-15, he made his mistake: He went for a huge second serve and missed it wildly. It was reminiscent of the types of second serves he was missing as he nervously squandered a two-set lead to Dominic Thiem in last year’s US Open final.

Djokovic sensed those nerves on the other side of the net. At break point, he played his finest point of the match, sliding a backhand drop shot crosscourt that just crept over the net, and following it up with a forehand pass for the break. Djokovic lifted his arms, walked to the sidelines, and rolled to a 5-0 lead from there.

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Djokovic found another level of excellence and resilience when he needed to.

Djokovic found another level of excellence and resilience when he needed to.

Before this match, I wrote that Djokovic has essentially been saying to his opponents at this year’s Open, “Whatever level you reach, I’ll match it and surpass it.” Instead of matching Zverev tonight, Djokovic showed off all the things that he can do that Zverev can’t. Zverev hit more aces and more winners, but it was Djokovic who used his drop shot, who used his lob, who used his slice, who used his serve to get him out of trouble, who won 16 more points at the net than Zverev, and who ran after absolutely everything.

Two of those runs stand out:

With Zverev serving at 4-5 in the third, Djokovic reached double set point. On the first of them, the two men sprinted and slugged through 53 shots, until Zverev ended the rally with a forehand winner. Both looked exhausted, and both took a few extra seconds. But Djokovic recovered more quickly and, after another terrific rally, closed out the set with a smash.

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The second only-Djokovic-can-do-this moment came when he was up 3-0 in the fifth set, with a break point for 4-0. Zverev roped a crosscourt backhand that seemed to have won him the point, but Djokovic made a last-ditch effort to get to the ball and throw up a defensive lob. The effort paid off, as Zverev stoned his overhead long. One break was now two breaks, and Zverev stared dumbfounded into his player box—the mountain was finally too high to climb.

Like his rival Rafael Nadal, Djokovic has been wrongly labeled a wallboard; it was his versatility and comfort in all parts of the court that made the difference tonight.

“I’m going to treat the next match as if it’s the last match of my career,” he said afterward, referring to the final he’ll play against Daniil Medvedev.

If he was doing any less tonight, I can only imagine what he has in store on Sunday.