Top10Matches_2021-10-wide

Over the next two weeks, we'll run down our Top 10 Matches of the 2021 season.

Novak Djokovic lost his bid to win the first Grand Slam since 1988 in his 28th and final match at the majors. But it was his 27th that likely sealed his fate.

Djokovic spent the US Open dropping an early set to his opponents, and then winning the other three. He did it in his opener, against Holger Rüne; in the third round, against Kei Nishikori; in the fourth round, against Jenson Brooksby; and in the quarterfinals, against Matteo Berrettini. Each of those matches was progressively more taxing, but it was his semifinal against Zverev that was the most draining of all. This time he dropped not just one but two sets, played for three hours and 34 minutes, and finished well after his final-round opponent, Daniil Medvedev, was comfortably in his hotel room and resting. All season, Djokovic had defied his age and recovered from tough battles against younger opponents. But he couldn’t recover from this one.

“Biggest battle I had so far in the tournament,” Djokovic said. “It was expected. I mean, Zverev was in tremendous form. He hasn’t dropped too many sets in this tournament. He was on a roll, winning Olympic, winning Cincinnati.”

Zverev was indeed on a roll. He had won his last 16 matches, and his serve had evolved into the most damaging and intimidating weapon in the men’s game. Even so, he knew that the level that had earned him those 16 wins wouldn’t be enough against the world No. 1. To beat Djokovic he said, he would need to be perfect. Those words proved prescient, because Zverev was just about everything you could ask for in this match, but he wasn’t quite perfect.

Throughout the Open, Djokovic’s attitude toward his opponents had been: “Whatever level you reach, I’ll surpass it.” Against Zverev, he did it twice—in the second and third sets, and again with the match in the fifth. In this case, he did it by showing off all of the things that he could do on a court that Zverev couldn’t. Zverev hit more aces and more winners, but it was Djokovic who used his drop shot, his lob, his slice and his serve when he needed it; who won 16 more points than Zverev at the net, and who ran after every ball for five sets.

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Zverev was just about everything you could ask for in this match, but he wasn’t quite perfect.

Quality-wise, what set this match apart from most others in 2021 was the level of the rallies—the mix of intensity and length—in the third set. They peaked with Zverev serving at 4-5. At 15-40, double set point for Djokovic, the two men sprinted and slugged through 53 shots, until Zverev ended it with a forehand winner. Both looked exhausted, and both took a few extra seconds afterward, but it was the older man who recovered more quickly. After another terrific rally, Djokovic closed out the set with a smash.

“Like most of the other matches that I won during this tournament, when I lost the first set, I started to play really, really good tennis in the second and third,” Djokovic said. “A couple of very long points, exchanges in the end of the third set. Obviously, clinching the third set was a huge relief and advantage.”

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WATCH: Zverev earned some revenge against Djokovic after the US Open, at the ATP Finals, defeating him in the semifinal round.

If Djokovic had been able to close this one out quickly in the fourth, would he have had more in the tank for the final? We’ll never know, because Zverev, to his credit, refused to let that happen and pushed it to a fifth. Unfortunately for him, that’s when his moment of imperfection happened. In his opening service game of the fifth set, at 15-15, Zverev tightened up, went for a huge second serve and missed badly. Sensing fear, Djokovic played his finest point of the match at break point, sliding a backhand drop shot crosscourt that crept over the net, and following it up with a forehand pass for the break. Djokovic lifted his arms, walked to a sideline, and quickly rolled to a 5-0 lead. He would finally finish Zverev off, 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2.

When it was over, Djokovic said he would “treat the next match as if it’s the last match of my career.” Most of us thought he would succeed and beat Medvedev for the title, but his win over Zverev would be his last at this tournament. Djokovic didn’t win the Grand Slam, but he left it all on the court trying, and the effort left us with one of the best matches of the season.