We all know what Gary Lineker said about the sport that Americans call soccer.
“Football is a simple game,” the former English striker said. “Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.”
If we wanted to say something similar about men’s tennis over the last decade, it might go something like this:
“Tennis is a game in which there are blown leads and stirring comebacks, racquet smashes and primal screams, injuries and recoveries, brilliant returns and pinpoint passing shots, brutal rallies and great gets, tight tiebreakers and tense moments, and in the end, Novak Djokovic almost always wins.”
There was a little bit of all of that in Djokovic’s 6-7 (6), 6-2, 6-4, 7-6 (6) quarterfinal victory over Alexander Zverev at the Australian Open on Wednesday. Djokovic trailed 3-5 in the first set, before ultimately losing it in a tiebreaker. He trailed 1-4 in the third set, before winning it 6-4. And he trailed 0-3 in the third set, and had to save a set point, before closing out the match in a second tiebreaker after three hours and 30 minutes.
Yet despite the chaos and surface uncertainty, and despite the fact that Djokovic dug himself so many holes, I never felt as if the top seed was in serious danger. Even when he was behind in the score, Djokovic was still clearly the quicker, more consistent, more efficient, and deep down more confident player of the two. In the ongoing attempt by the Next Gen to close the gap with the Big 3 (or Big 2 in Melbourne), this match was evidence that much work remains to be done by the younger set.
“There was a lot of keys, a lot of turnarounds today,” Djokovic said. “It’s hard to pick one moment in the match where I feel like things have shifted, because it was really anybody’s game. It was really a roller-coaster of a match in every sense of the word.”
Of the 288 points that the Serb and German contested, I’ll isolate three that seemed to me to illustrate the difference between them.
The first came in the opening game of the second set. Djokovic had just lost a close tiebreaker after coming back from a break down. Many players wouldn’t be able to shrug off that disappointment right away, and might fall behind an early break in the second set. Djokovic did the opposite, and instead took a page from the mental playbook of his rival Rafael Nadal. When Nadal was young, his uncle Toni drilled into him the idea that a player who wins a set will relax for a game or two at the start of the next set, and that this is the time to strike back with a service break. Djokovic struck back against Zverev right away, firing a brilliant forehand return on the first point, following it with a forehand winner, and eventually breaking serve. In an instant, the German’s momentum was halted. Djokovic’s return and forehand on that point alone made me feel as if he would be able to raise his game above Zverev’s whenever necessary.
The second crucial point came with Zverev serving at 4-2, 30-30 in the third set. He hit a good wide serve that Djokovic blocked back. The ball landed short and bounced high, and looked like easy pickings for a Zverev forehand. But he hesitated a split second, and then hit an average down-the-line approach. Djokovic anticipated it and responded with a backhand pass that Zverev couldn’t handle. The point illustrated both Djokovic’s superior counterpunching skills, and Zverev’s lack of self-assurance with his transition game. If Zverev wins that point, he would have had a game point for 5-2. Instead, Djokovic broke for 3-4 and came back to win the set.
The third and final point I want to mention happened with Djokovic serving at 5-6 in the fourth set. This might have been the best and most taxing point of the night. Djokovic fired his forehand, Zverev fired his forehand harder, and the two went corner to corner. Finally, Zverev demolished a forehand down the line that looked certain to go for a winner…until Djokovic appeared in the screen, slid toward the ball, and reflexed a one-handed backhand for a winner of his own. Besides being the rally of the match, it was also indicative of the fact that, as well as Zverev might play, and as hard he might push Djokovic, the world No. 1 still has the answer.
“It was just a tough match,” said Djokovic, who hit 23 aces and 48 winners. “I mean, I feel really exhausted. It was a great battle. We took each other, pushed each other to the limit.”
“Until the last serve, it was anybody’s game.”
And then, just like so many times before, Djokovic won.