The high-performance machine was again in high gear, humming along without any blips, seemingly on course to finish off yet another routine elite performance.
With little warning, though, the rarely seen breakdowns started to come for Serbia’s Novak Djokovic. A string of missed serves here. Missed volleys there. And most shocking of all for someone who has made a history out of wearing down opponents by getting every ball back in extended rallies, left without answers after being overpowered by Germany’s Alexander Zverev.
In what must go down as one of the biggest upsets in Olympic tennis history, Zverev knocked Djokovic off his throne — at least temporarily — with a stunning 1-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory in the semi-finals.
Zverev will now face Karen Khachnakov of the Russian Olympic Committee, a 6-3, 6-3 winner over Pablo Carreño Busta for the gold medal. Djokovic and Carreño Busta will fight for the bronze.
Immediately after the loss to Zverev, Djokovic and Serbian partner Nina Stojanovic lost 7-6 (4), 7-5 in their mixed doubles semi-final to the ROC tandem of Aslan Karatsev and Elena Vesnina. No doubt the singles match was weighing heavily on him during that match.
“I feel so terrible right now, I can’t be positive right now,” Djokovic told reporters after the mixed doubles was complete. “I don’t know if I feel terrible in every sense, but tomorrow is a fresh start. I can recover and at least win one medal for my country.”
With the defeat, countless Djokovic winning streaks and a quest to make history went out the window. Djokovic entered the semi-final on a 22-match winning streak and rolled through the tournament without dropping a set, having lost only 17 games along the way. In the quarter-finals, he stopped Japan’s Kei Nishikori 6-2, 6-0.
Djokovic, who has won the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon titles this year, was on a quest to become the first men’s player to win the Golden Slam — winning all four major tournaments (the U.S. Open is to come in September) and the Olympic gold medal. Former German women’s star Steffi Graf is the only player in history to have won a Golden Slam.
What made the loss even more shocking was the fact Djokovic was seemingly in complete control. After a dominating first set, he was up 3-2, including a break of Zverev’s serve, in the second set. At that point, Zverev was a picture of frustration, smashing his racquet against the court and knocking a ball out of the stadium.
Everything turned from there.
Zverev, seeded fourth in the Olympic tournament, has experienced bouts of nervousness in big moments of tournaments in the past, including a tendency to serve double faults at big moments. There was none of that Friday as he turned the channel completely, with Djokovic fading in the heat as the match came to an end.
With the match slipping away, it was Djokovic who was yelling at himself for having few answers against the powerful groundstrokes that were coming from Zverev.
“It’s just sport, you know,” Djokovic said. “He played better. I’ve got to give him credit for turning the match around. He served extremely well. I was not getting too many looks on the second serve. My serve just drastically dropped. I didn’t get any free points from 3-2 in the second (set). Yeah, my game fell apart…his game, he won, I think seven or eight games in a row, and yeah, that was it.”
The two, close friends off the court, embraced at the net following the match.
“I told him that he’s greatest of all time,” Zverev said. “I knew that he was chasing history, is chasing the Golden Slam and was cashing the Olympics, but in these kinds of moments, me and Novak are close.
“I feel sorry for Novak, but he’s won 20 grand slams, 550 masters series or whatever, you can’t have everything,” Zverev said. “Of course I’m happy that I’ve won, but at the end of the day, I know how Novak feels. (For me), it’s an amazing feeling knowing that you’re going to bring (a) medal back to your home, back home to Germany. It’s incredible beating the best player in the world undoubtedly right now and in this season. It seemed it was impossible to beat him at this event, so I’m very happy right now. But there’s still one match to go.”