Novak Djokovic, King of the Olympic Village, Loses Run at Golden Slam
TOKYO – Novak Djokovic’s dream of a Golden Slam ended in the early hours of another thick night at the Olympics, with a final scorching racquet winner from German Alexander Zverev.
Zverev returned from a set and a hiatus to beat Djokovic, the world No.1 male player, 1-6, 6-3, 6-1, scoring a stunning upset from an all-time greats who had seemed almost invincible lately and on track to pull off a feat no male tennis player had achieved.
Djokovic was trying to win all four Grand Slam tournaments and the Olympic gold medal in a calendar year. He had won the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon and came to Tokyo in search of the fourth gem. The United States Open takes place at the end of the summer.
Djokovic appeared to be on cruise control when he broke Zverev’s serve to get within three games of the game in the second set. Zverev shot a ball skyward in frustration. He looked destined to come to a quick end, like Djokovic’s first four kills in Tokyo.
But with little to lose, Zverev began to unleash his burgeoning serve and set up a series of crushing forehands to gain control, and Djokovic inexplicably began to pulverize his shots off the field.
“Terrible, just terrible,” said Djokovic, when asked how he felt at the end of a night that also included a loss in the mixed doubles semi-final.
Djokovic tried to slow Zverev’s momentum with a long bathroom break between the second and third sets, as he has done in tense times in the past. But that didn’t work and in the two-of-three set format he didn’t have the cushion that the marathon offered in Grand Slam matches, which require three out of five sets to win.
After Zverev won eight straight games with apparent ease, sprinting to take a 4-0 lead in the deciding set, Djokovic faced a mountain too steep to climb, despite several thrilling comebacks he had put on during the games. first three Grand Slam tournaments this year.
“It’s just sports,” Djokovic said. “You have to give him credit for turning the game upside down. He served extremely well. I wasn’t getting too many looks on the second serve. My service has just dropped considerably. I didn’t get any free points at 3-2 in the second set. My game has collapsed.
When his last shot passed Djokovic, Zverev grabbed his face with both hands in disbelief and he kissed the Serbian champion at the net.
Zverev said he told Djokovic he would become the greatest player in the history of the sport, win the most Grand Slam and Masters titles and spend more weeks as a best player in the world than anyone.
“I knew he was chasing a Golden Slam but you can’t win it all,” Zverev said. “I told him he was the greatest player of all time, but I’m sorry.”
Then he looked at the sky, wondering what he had just accomplished: the lifelong dream of winning an Olympic medal. He will face Karen Khachanov for the gold medal on Sunday.
The upheaval was all the more surprising as Djokovic had spent the week becoming the piper at the Tokyo Olympics, and the strategy seemed to be working.
After winning the singles title at Wimbledon this month, Djokovic returned home to Monte Carlo and turned off his phone.
He was sleeping. He spent time with his family and he seriously considered whether he wanted to go to Tokyo, without being bombarded with messages from Serbian officials, sponsors or anyone else about what he should do.
After winning in front of the crowd at the Grand Slam, he hated the idea of playing in nearly empty stadiums in Tokyo, as demanded by the Japanese government during the coronavirus pandemic. And he feared the transport to Japan and the sweltering summer heat would wear him down ahead of the US Open which kicks off in late August.
On the other hand, he loves to play for his country and has had a rare chance to win a Golden Slam in the calendar year. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, Djokovic’s rivals in the greatest men’s race of all time, had never done it – and probably never will.
But there was something else about the Olympics that attracted and energized Djokovic, who always craved the adulation Nadal and Federer received.
In the Olympic Village, where Djokovic does not stay but has had many meals and spent much of his free time, he has become the man to be photographed with, or to break bread, or to talk about life with, or take an impromptu sports psychology seminar with, or stretch and work with. The busy social calendar certainly did not detract from the extensive image overhaul campaign he has been involved in this year.
No athlete of Djokovic’s stature has embarked on these Games like Djokovic has. Where others saw the tournament as a job, Djokovic adopted it as a break from the monotony of the tennis tour, an 11-month period in which tennis players rarely have the opportunity to interact. with athletes from other sports.
On Wednesday he even signed to play in the mixed doubles competition with Nina Stojanovic, something few expected from him. In fact, after losing to Zverev, Djokovic headed almost immediately to Court 1 for his mixed doubles semi-final. He chased the balls and fought late into the night, as he and Stojanovic lost to Aslan Karatsev and Elena Vesnina of Russia, 7-6 (4), 7-5.
“I have a lot of fun on the pitch and a lot of fun in the village,” Djokovic said earlier in the week.
Djokovic’s merry Games man also served as his image recovery project after a terrible 2020. In the spring, when the pandemic was in its first months and most sports were still closed, he organized a tennis exhibition with several of his fellow players who have become a superspreader event.
He recorded and approved a discussion with one of his spiritual advisers, Chervin Jafarieh, in which Jafarieh explained how people can make polluted water and poisonous food harmless through the power of their emotions. (You can not.)
At the US Open, he hit a bullet with anger that accidentally hit a linesman in the throat. He was immediately disqualified.
At the Australian Open, he drew criticism in the country for insisting on amenities for players who were on hard lockdown due to coronavirus cases on their flights – a move that did not go well spent in a country where cases were extremely low and people were hesitant about whether the tournament should take place at all.
But he ended up winning this tournament for the ninth time, then beat Nadal on clay in Paris and been on a Grand Slam course like nothing in the men’s game in half a century.
Then, in Tokyo, he became the man of the athletes’ village, breaking up with Belgian gymnasts, talking about mental strategy and exchanging training tips with Turkish volleyball players, and going after the soccer team. Serbia when a compatriot won a medal in taekwondo.
Love returned to him too. Although Ariake Tennis Park’s center court was largely empty on Friday, around three dozen Serbian coaches and athletes made it look like a rock star was playing in a small nightclub. Through one set and five games, it looked like the support would get him through.
But a rolling Zverev, and, perhaps, the pressure of what he was trying to accomplish, ultimately proved too important, as did Naomi Osaka, the tennis star who lit the Olympic flame and carried the weight of the host country on his shoulders and lost his third round match.
Zverev said that by kissing Djokovic at the net he had nothing but praise for the player who has 20 Grand Slam titles and was 6-2 against him entering the game.
“I thought I had a medal for Germany,” Zverev said. “This is probably the proudest moment of my career.” For Djokovic, the weekend will now bring two bronze medal games, disappointing consolations for a week that went so well.
“I feel bad right now in every way,” he said. “But I hope tomorrow will be a fresh start, and I can recover and win at least one medal for my country.”
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