Opinion: Novak Djokovic's mastery of Grand Slam format forces challengers to find new levels

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NEW YORK — Of the three players remaining who have a chance to stop Novak Djokovic from completing the calendar year Grand Slam this weekend at the U.S. Open, two of them have proven multiple times they can beat him.

His semifinal opponent, Alexander Zverev, has, in fact, notched three wins over Djokovic — all in significant tournaments, including the year-end ATP Finals and quite recently at the Tokyo Olympics. His potential final opponent Daniil Medvedev, whose tactical brilliance and movement around the court has carried him to No. 2 in the world, also owns three wins over Djokovic in important events on the ATP Tour.

But for the generation of players in their mid-20s that by all historical standards should have taken over tennis by now, Djokovic has raised the barrier to entry in the club of Grand Slam champions. To beat him doesn’t just require great tennis, which Zverev, Medvedev and a small group of others have shown they can produce. In the best-of-five-set format that is now only employed at the four Grand Slams, it takes a physical, emotional and tactical level that none of them have proven they can sustain hour after hour.

Top seed Novak Djokovic hits a forehand during his quarterfinal win over No. 6 seed Matteo Berrettini.
Top seed Novak Djokovic hits a forehand during his quarterfinal win over No. 6 seed Matteo Berrettini.

“He's in a fantastic form,” Djokovic said of Zverev, who rides into the semifinals on a 16-match winning streak and has only dropped one set at the U.S. Open. “Next to Medvedev, he’s in the best form. But it's best-of-five. It's Grand Slam.”

At this point, it might as well be another sport entirely.

Though playing best-of-five has long differentiated the most prestigious events on the tennis tour, a lot more tournaments on the regular schedule used to employ it. By 2008, when the group of 10 events just below the Grand Slams in ranking points and prestige all went to best-of-three, the longer, more rigorous format was basically extinct except for at the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the grueling nature of the Grand Slams would favor younger players with fresher legs, not the likes of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, whose combined grip over the sport has held firm since 2004 with 60 of the last 72 major titles.

The reasons for that are not just rooted in their physical advantages, which for each of them have been immense in different ways. It’s also about the generosity of the best-of-five format itself, which gives them the runway to draw on their experience, work out problems in their game, change their tactics, manage their energy level, if necessary, and turn the pressure onto their younger opponent to finish the job.

That is an immense difference from a best-of-three set match, where an opponent running hot for an hour can knock someone out of a regular tournament. To do it at a Grand Slam requires a sustainability of energy, nerves and execution that has proven to be rare. And nobody is better at exploiting that difference than Djokovic.

Novak Djokovic celebrates winning beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final of the 2021 French Open.
Novak Djokovic celebrates winning beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final of the 2021 French Open.

“What I learned today is no matter what, in order for the match to be finished, you have to win three sets and not two. Two sets doesn’t really mean anything,” Stefanos Tsitsipas said after the French Open final, when he took the first two sets off Djokovic but was helpless as the momentum of the match flipped. “He left the court after he was two sets to love down, and he came back to me like a different player suddenly. I don’t know. I have no idea. He played really well. He gave me no space.”

Djokovic’s sense of when to push, and sometimes when to back off and save his energy, is uncanny. Often, it takes such an effort from an opponent to win a set from Djokovic that it’s impossible to avoid an emotional and physical letdown to start the next one. But Djokovic knows that, too, and even a tiny blip of concentration can be fatal to his opponent’s chances.

In the Wimbledon final, Matteo Berrettini was up 40-15 on his serve in the first game of the second set after winning the first in a tiebreaker. But just a few bad points in a row from Berrettini gave Djokovic the opportunity to break, which gave him the feeling of control and planted doubt in the head of Berrettini, even though he was still ahead on the scoreboard.

“He doesn't give me any free points. I have to earn every single point,” Berrettini said Wednesday after Djokovic wiped him out again in the U.S. Open quarterfinals despite losing the first set. “I don't think I played worse than the first set — just a little bit more tired, I guess, that in a way with other players I wouldn't feel it. With him, just one point percentage-wise and the game changed. That's what I feel on the court.”

A significant part of that edge is undeniably rooted in Djokovic’s fitness, which became a focus of his training and nutrition earlier in his career when he found himself struggling to go to the distance against the best players. Now, even at age 34, his condition is so pristine that he seems to still relish the challenge of long, physical matches.

“I like to play best-of-five, especially against the younger guys,” he said. “I think the experience of being on the big stage so many times does help. Physically I feel as fit as anybody out there. So I can go the distance. Actually I like to go the distance.”

The group of players who have been able to hang with him physically in five set matches and keep control over their nerves, their energy and their concentration is small. Nadal, of course, has done it before. Andy Murray, on occasion, was able to outlast Djokovic. Stan Wawrinka managed to keep pounding enough backhands at Djokovic in two Grand Slam finals to withstand the push. Dominic Thiem did it once in a French Open semifinal.

Now it’s up to Zverev and perhaps Medvedev to see if they can burst through that five-set barrier. At the Olympics, Zverev was down a set and a break but showed the willingness to play offensive tennis and push Djokovic around, particularly with his backhand. Once Zverev got the match even, Djokovic completely fell apart and it ended relatively quickly.

“This year it seems like nobody can beat him in a big match, nobody can beat him at the Grand Slams,” Zverev said. “I feel like I was the first player to beat him in a very big match this year. That does give you something. To any person it would give you something."

But the high level of confidence that has carried Zverev ever since is belied by the reality that he’ll face a completely different challenge Friday. Doing it when Djokovic is going for the Grand Slam, in a format that has been vexing for the top young players to solve, is the ultimate crucible on the way to their own greatness.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open: Novak Djokovic has become master of Grand Slam format