Djokovic beats Zverev to reach tournament semi-finals for ninth time
Top four men—Djokovic, Nadal, Thiem and Medvedev—form semi line-up
Five-time champion Novak Djokovic had one big hurdle to overcome on a damp Friday afternoon at London’s O2.
He arrived at the season’s finale knowing that he had clinched the year-end No1 for a record-equalling sixth time. And by the end of the tournament, he could also be claiming a second record-equalling statistic. He could match Roger Federer’s six ATP Finals titles, thereby becoming the oldest champion, too.
His form, as he closed in on yet another record, the most weeks at No1, suggested he would do just that.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world and closed down tennis for six months, he won a record eighth Australian Open, plus the ATP Cup with Serbia, as well as Dubai.
His unbeaten run continued into the revised August schedule, extending his record in Masters titles to 36 with wins in Cincinnati and Rome, and he was stopped at the French Open only by Rafael Nadal. At the start of this week, then, he had 39 wins for only three losses: impressive indeed.
Across the net was Alexander Zverev, a man with just as much at stake in this winner-takes-all contest. Like Djokovic, he had lost to Daniil Medvedev and won against Diego Schwartzman. The winner of this one would seal a semi-final place, the loser would head home.
Zverev had, on paper, come into London on a rising curve of form despite being forced to bat away questions about accusations of violence from a former girlfriend. He had come within touching distance of winning the US Open— incidentally, his first Major final—then won two ATP250s in Cologne, and reached the final at the Paris Masters.
What is more, Zverev had twice beaten Djokovic in their five meetings, including their final showdown on this very court two years ago. So could he reach his third straight semi-final at the last event of 2020?
Djokovic opened in perfect style, a love hold, and then upped the ante still more to capitalize on a hesitant start from Zverev, who struggled to find his big first serve.
Facing 15-40, the German double faulted on a second serve—an increasingly frequent occurrence this season—to concede the break. Another clean hold, and Djokovic led 3-0, with 12 points to two.
There was some relief in Zverev’s face after a hold to love, but Djokovic would be a hard nut to crack. The German did begin to find some rhythm to fire some winners deep through the court, and worked two break chances, only to see Djokovic give a serving clinic that was finished with a smash winner, 5-2.
After little more than half an hour, the Serb had served it out, 6-3, and if truth be known, with relatively little resistance from his opponent.
Zverev seemed a shadow of the player who swept in imperious style to the title just two years ago, beating this same man for the loss of only seven games. And a shadow of the player who had stacked up three Masters titles from seven Masters finals by the age of 23.
Perhaps it was because of draining confidence in his serve, perhaps the emotional toll of off-court matters. For Djokovic was playing straight-forward, clean tennis, without being called upon to produce fireworks.
Zverev did produce a better passage of play at the start of the second, pressing Djokovic to break point and several deuces in the fourth game, but time and again his backhand down the line—one of the best shots in his arsenal—let him down, and his attention turned constantly to his box.
But he finally found some passion when facing what would surely be a decisive break in the fifth game: He roared himself on with two winning net finishes to hold.
Zverev continued to produce much better tennis, determined to attack the net, and held for 5-4 with another volley winner, but he needed to break down the Djokovic serve and impenetrable defence, and that was a tough ask. A netted backhand from the German took it to a tie-break.
There, the German led only once, after the first two points, before the Djokovic tactics and execution opened up the court to take control, 5-3, and he served it out, 7-6(4), to reach his ninth semi-final in the tournament.
Djokovic will play Dominic Thiem in the second semi-final on Saturday evening, a replay of two outstanding recent contests between them. In the Australian Open final in January, Djokovic came back from two sets to one down to win, while in their round-robin in London 12 months ago, Thiem recovered from a set down to win in a final-set tie-breaker.
Djokovic clearly remembered their last London match:
“I played him here last year and lost 7-6 in the third set, it was a thrilling match. Hopefully, have another great match—with a different outcome.”
Along with Medvedev and Nadal in the other semi-final, this also marks the first time since 2004 that the four top seeds make up the final four players. The tournament will certainly leave its London venue with a bang.