Sascha Zverev looked to stand as good a chance as anyone of stopping Novak Djokovic’s march towards an historic calendar year Grand Slam. After all, it was the German who had ended Djokovic’s hopes of a Golden Grand Slam at the Tokyo Olympics with victory at the Cincinnati Masters and swift progress through the first five rounds of the US Open illustrating a player in the form of his life.
However, the Djokovic that faced Zverev on Friday night at Flushing Meadows was very different to the Djokovic that allowed the chance of an Olympic gold to slip through his fingers in Japan last month. Zverev played somewhere close to his best, taking two sets, but it still wasn’t enough as the world number one won the deciding set comfortably, 6-2.
Now, only Daniil Medvedev stands between Djokovic and a momentous achievement. The Russian has already lost two Grand Slam finals to Djokovic with Medvedev mauled in straight sets by the Serbian at the Australian Open earlier this year, and so there’s no doubting who the favourite will be on Sunday.
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Only once in the Open Era have the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open men’s singles titles all been claimed in the same year by the same man, and a lot has changed since Rod Laver did it last in 1969. Winning 28 out of 28 Grand Slam matches in a year isn’t easy.
Perhaps even more significantly in the grand scheme of things, victory over Medvedev in Sunday’s US Open final would edge Djokovic ahead of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as the male player with the most Grand Slam titles in the history of the sport. In more than one sense, history is on the line for the Serbian.
These are ominous times for men’s tennis. On one hand, the sport’s next generation are growing in stature with every Grand Slam. The likes of Medvedev, Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas are getting closer and closer to making their major breakthrough with Dominic Thiem winning his maiden Grand Slam title at last year’s US Open. This is before Felix Auger-Alliasime and Carlos Alcaraz are mentioned.
Yet Djokovic’s performances at the Grand Slams in 2021 have exposed the true distance still to be bridged by the next generation - Thiem only won the 2020 US Open after Djokovic was disqualified. Far from being his crowning achievement, a calendar year Grand Slam and 21st Grand Slam title could signify further dominance to come.
No male player has been as dominant in the Open Era as Djokovic is now - not Bjorn Borg in the 1970s, not Pete Sampras in the 1990s and not even Roger Federer in the mid-2000s. Not one of the aforementioned trio completed a calendar year Grand Slam, nor were they as strong on all four surfaces as Djokovic.
With Nadal still sidelined through injury and Federer out until early next year at least following knee surgery, the next few years could see Djokovic clean up. At 34, most players start to fade, but the world number one is still physically stronger than anyone else in the men’s game. No drop-off is imminent.
It will be up to the next generation, to the likes of Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev, to up their game rather than waiting for Djokovic to drop his. This could happen - see how Djokovic himself all-of-a-sudden found a new level in 2011 when he broke the Federer-Nadal duopoly as it was at the time - but will require a vast improvement from one of the chasing pack.
12 months ago, Arthur Ashe Stadium was the scene of arguably Djokovic’s lowest moment. On Sunday night, though, it could be where he confirms his standing as the greatest male tennis player of all-time. That likely still won’t be enough for a player who is dominating the sport like nobody else before.
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