The world number one led Alexander Zverev by a set only to lose ten of the next 11 games to crash out in one of the Games’ biggest shocks so far
Novak Djokovic is like a python when he gets in front. He squeezes the life out of his opponent until there is nothing left.
That is why his surprise defeat to Alex Zverev in the semi-final of the men’s singles in Tokyo was so shocking.
If you were to pick out Djokovic’s greatest strength it would be hard to look past his unparalleled will to win.
Sure, the groundstrokes are unerring and the defence is relentless, but it is in the big moments that the Serbian is in a league of his own.
Egter, Olympic tennis does funny things to even the very best. At his peak, Roger Federer lost to a teenage Tomas Berdych, while Andy Murray was dumped out in the first round to little-known Yen-hsun Lu before going on to become a two-time champ.
Selfs so, no one would have predicted that Djokovic would let a 6-1, 3-2 lead over Zverev slip, especially with a break in that second set.
From there, Djokovic collapsed as quickly as his hopes of a ‘Golden Slam’, losing ten of the next 11 games to crash out. A fortnight after winning Wimbledon to join Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 Grand Slams, the dream of a perfect year died.
And Zverev was almost apologetic at knocking out his idol and close friend.
Hy het gesê: “I told him (at the net) that he’s the greatest of all time, and he will be. I know that he was chasing history, is chasing the Golden Slam and was chasing the Olympics, but in these kinds of moments me and Novak are very close.
“Of course I’m happy that I’ve won, but at the end of the day I know how Novak feels. I feel sorry for Novak, but he’s won 20 Grand Slams, 550 Masters Series or whatever, you can’t have everything.
“He’s the greatest player of all time, he will win the most Grand Slams out of anybody on tour, but I’m also happy that I’m in the final.”
When Djokovic sent Nadal packing at Roland Garros last month, he appeared invincible. Not only had he beaten his great rival at a venue where he has been untouchable, Djokovic bullied him.
Wimbledon was a formality, and even in the draining conditions in Tokyo, the gold and the upcoming US Open merely the provided the setting for what was set to be his greatest triumph.
He will never get the admiration of Federer, or even Nadal, but statistically he could have ended the debate over which of the three is the greatest. That debate will roll on.
Nadal and Federer both have Olympic gold medals, the Spaniard in singles and doubles, the Swiss just in doubles.
Djokovic, intussen, has just an Olympic bronze to his name. By 34, his best chance may have gone. Perhaps not, na alles, Paris is only three years away and until today he had looked as dominant as he ever has.
However the Golden Slam, a feat achieved only once in history by Steffi Graf in 1988, is now beyond him this year, and surely forever.
To rub salt into already raw wounds, Djokovic was back out on court and then quickly dispatched in the mixed doubles semi-finals alongside Nina Stojanovic.
He will come back looking to add two more Olympic bronze medals to his name, but for a man who came into the day aiming to cement his legacy as the greatest of all time, they will offer not even a flicker of consolation.
“It was a tough day, a really tough day. I feel so terrible right now," hy het gesê, trying to come up with an explanation as to how he fell apart in the singles.
“I was leading a set then a break and he managed to turn the match around, he served huge, was attacking, and I was not getting any free points on my first serves. And I missed a lot of first serves from 3-2 in the second.
“To play someone of his quality, of his level, it’s just too tough to win a match.”
It will take a lot to come back from this disappointment. A golden opportunity for the ‘Golden Slam’ has gone, likely for good.
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