Twenty-seven matches down, one to go.
That is where world No. 1 Novak Djokovic stands in his pursuit of the calendar Grand Slam.
With his 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 victory over No. 4 Sascha Zverev in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Friday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Djokovic advanced to the U.S. Open final against No. 2 Daniil Medvedev on Sunday and has a chance to own all four majors in 2021.
After capturing the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, the 34-year-old Serb can join Rod Laver as the only men in the Open Era to win the Grand Slam, and become the sixth person ever to do it. Laver won two Grand Slams in 1962 and ‘69.
The 83-year-old Australian legend, nicknamed “The Rocket,” sat courtside for both men’s semifinals Friday and the crowd cheered as Elton John’s “Rocket Man” blared over the sound system when he was shown on the large screens. He has said he would be “very happy” to welcome Djokovic to the Grand Slam club.
Djokovic is into his 31st major final and is seeking to set a men’s record with 21 major titles, which would surpass his rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. He is bidding for his fourth U.S. Open title (2011, ‘15, ‘18) in his ninth finals appearance.
“I’m going for a fourth U.S. Open, that’s all I’m thinking about it,” he told Patrick McEnroe on court.
Pressed on his quest for the Grand Slam, Djokovic added: “It’s there, it’s there. I know that people would like to hear me talk about it but there’s not much to talk about. There’s only one match, let’s do it. All in. I’m going to put my heart and my soul and my body and head into that one. I’m going to treat the next match like it is the last match of my career.”
The loss snapped a 16-match winning streak for Zverev, who beat Djokovic en route to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. Zverev fell to 0-11 against Top-10 opponents in majors. He lost in five sets in last year’s final to Dominic Thiem after coming within two points of winning the title.
This was the fourth time that Djokovic had been pushed to a fifth set during his Grand Slam run. In the championship match in Paris, he came from two sets down to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas for the title.
In the second game of the decisive fifth set against Zverev, Djokovic ended a long baseline rally with a drop shot and a forehand pass after Zverev was forced to come in. That put the Serb up 2-0.
Serving at 0-3, 30-40, Zverev shanked an easy overhead long and Djokovic was up a double-break 4-0.
Djokovic missed a chance to close the match out while serving at 5-1, but then earned a match point with the German serving at 2-5. Djokovic closed it out with a forehand winner and the two men soon embraced at the net.
As he has done in his previous three matches, Djokovic dropped the first set to an aggressive Zverev, who took advantage of his one break to take the lead. And just as he had done in previous matches, Djokovic reestablished control after that, winning the next two sets.
The third set featured a 53-shot rally that last 1 minute, 18 seconds — and was ultimately won by Djokovic. The crowd erupted during the point and finally exhaled in celebration when it was over.
“It’s kind of a hurricane, a tornado of emotions, that you’re going through in the sequence of one point,” Djokovic said “There’s no escape, you gotta find a way. Over the years, I’ve managed to find a formula that works for me…There’s no secret potion that I would say is the secret of success.
“Tennis a beautiful sport and you’ve got to have mind and body balanced at all times if you want to compete on the biggest stage for the trophies.”
But Zverev did not quit and earned an early break in the court set, going up 3-1. He served for the fourth set at 5-4 and closed it out with a forehand winner.
The crowd appeared split, periodically rooting for each man. Djokovic has had the crowd against him for years while facing Nadal and Federer here — and even at times without them here during this fortnight.
Now Djokovic will face Medvedev in the final and the crowd figures to be divided agin.
The Russian is into his second U.S. Open final in three years after taking out No. 12 Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada in straight sets.
It will be a rematch of the Australian Open final won by Djokovic in straight sets in February, but Medvedev says he didn’t play his best in Melbourne.
“If it’s going to be him, it’s going to be more interesting in terms of tactic what I’m going to prepare,” he said. “I think the thing that I understand, I always give my best, but I feel like I didn’t leave my heart on the court in Melbourne. Even if of course I wanted to, there was something not turning up this match.
“That’s what I’m going to try to do on Arthur Ashe with hopefully 100% of fans. No matter the score, I’m just going to turn up the heat, if I can say, and try to do my best, even more than what I did in Melbourne.”
Medvedev said before the tournament that he was here to stop Djokovic from winning the Grand Slam.
Now he is in position to and he knows he can halt Djokovic’s bid for history while simultaneously winning his first Slam.
“I’m probably be in the history books a little bit somewhere like not letting him do this,” he said. “But I don’t really care about it. I think it’s more about him, that it affects him.”