When Novak Djokovic retires from tennis, maybe he should write a book on efficiency.
The Serb is like one of the new-age smart gadgets, minimizing flaws and maximizing performance. His game has neither the beauty of Roger Federer's nor the savagery of Rafael Nadal's. And yet there is a growing sense that he might get the better of both. This week, former champions from Rod Laver to Marat Safin have validated his bid of not only completing his second 'Nole Slam' but finishing with more majors than Federer (20 majors) and Nadal (17) — who have been locked in the battle of 'greatest ever' for almost a decade.
Efficiency was once again the key as Djokovic went about diminishing Alexander Zverev's Grand Slam hopes. While Zverev wavered and faltered and gestured and cursed through only his second major quarter-final, Djokovic clinically picked at his opponent's tactical and emotional short-comings to score a 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 win on Thursday.
It was Djokovic's fifth straight-sets victory in a row at the French Open. His passage to the final four meant that for the first time since 2011, the top four seeds have made it to the semi-finals. While Federer and Nadal have set up yet another tantalizing showdown, 15-time Grand Slam champion Djokovic will face Dominic Thiem on Friday.
Not all was well in Nole land at the beginning. Zverev seemed to genuinely enjoy the status of being an underdog in a Grand Slam match – the only other time he faced a 'Big 3' member at a major was against Rafael Nadal at the 2017 Australian Open. The lanky 6'6" German took big swings on his forehand and backhand to keep the pressure on Djokovic. He pushed the World No 1 to a breakpoint on Djokovic's first two service games, but couldn't quite convert it. He finally made good of his fourth break opportunity as Djokovic over-hit a backhand after a protracted rally.
But, as he has on countless occasions in the past, Djokovic played his steadiest tennis when cornered. At 30-30 Zverev got too impatient, tried to beat the Serb with a drop shot, but the execution was just not there. The ball was too high, Djokovic moved in for the kill. On the next point, Djokovic cracked a forehand from mid-court, with seeming inches of margin, but Zverev just couldn't get the ball back.
The break of serve had been just the prodding the World No 1 needed to up his level in the contest.
For all his early promise, Zverev has struggled in the majors – the two quarter-final finishes at the French Open being his best. And though only 21, the youngster seems like he's carrying an unnatural weight of expectations on his shoulders. Rarely does he seem to smile or enjoy the game and the slightest misfortune can make him nervy and irritable.
Those symptoms showed up again by the end of the opening set, as rather than taking some heart from the fact that he was the first player at this tournament to win five games in a set against Djokovic, Zverev was quickly bogged down a Djokovic on the comeback. Fifth seed Zverev, who had served for the set at 5-4, surrendered it at 5-7 with a double fault and went down 0-3 in the second set.
"He has a very strong serve so that was a big challenge for me to find a good position to return," Djokovic said. "I played five or six games perfectly. I started hitting the ball a bit more cleanly."
The 2016 champion, aiming to win his fourth major in a row, had found all the right spots to hit on the court. Though Zverev has an impressive movement for a player so tall and a massive wingspan, Djokovic was able to lure him out of his comfort zone time and again.
The second set ended just like the first had for the German: gift-wrapped in a double fault (his fourth of the game). Djokovic played steady, smart tennis, testing Zverev's readiness for the big league. Even though the German showed some glimpses of why he is rated so highly, unleashing some heavy groundstrokes, he didn’t do it often enough to test the Serb's famed defence.
The statistics tell their own story of how Zverev scrambled up and down while Djokovic flat-lined at efficacy. Zverev fired 10 aces but countered them with eight double faults. He hit 35 winners but 40 unforced errors. Up against the best returner in the game, Zverev could win only nine of his 26 points on second serve. He won 12 of 26 net points, but the stat that would hurt the most was that Zverev converted only one of his eight break points. At the other end, Djokovic settled for 24 winners and 18 unforced errors. He won 80% of the points on his first serve and 51% on his second. He converted six of his 11 break point opportunities and 13 of 18 net points.
On the crucial points, Djokovic's steadier play won the day. Against Zverev, on Thursday, efficient was all he needed.
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Updated Date: Jun 06, 2019 23:14:37 IST