Novak Djokovic loses men's singles semi-final to Alexander Zverev, ending hopes of 'golden slam'

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Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts during the Men's Singles Semifinal against Alexander Zverev of Germany at the Tennis events of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo, Japan, 30 July 2021 - Shutterstock
Novak Djokovic of Serbia reacts during the Men's Singles Semifinal against Alexander Zverev of Germany at the Tennis events of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo, Japan, 30 July 2021 - Shutterstock

It was always going to take someone - or even something - remarkable to halt Novak Djokovic's Golden Slam charge.

The world No 1 resolutely insisted it was the former, the 1-6 6-3 6-1 semi-final scoreline certainly reflecting the commendable turnaround by big-hitting Alexander Zverev. The German deserves credit for the way he battled into the gold-medal match but it was hard to completely ignore the lingering sense of that other something else which may have played a part in ending Djokovic's bid to become the first male player to hold all four Slams and win an Olympic title in the same year.

"No," replied the 34-year-old, when asked how much of part the sticky, hot and humid conditions had played in his shock defeat. "It's just sport. He played better. I've got to give him credit for turning the match around. He served extremely well. My serve dropped. My game fell apart."

Pushed again on whether it was his mind or his body that had let him down, "next question" was the immediate response.
In fairness, it was not just the heat that had left the Serbian, who won singles bronze in Beijing 2008 but has now lost three Olympic semi-finals, bristling. On top of his singles ambitions melting away in the Tokyo evening, he had also just suffered the disappointment of losing another semi-final, Russian pair Aslan Karatsev and Elena Vesnina getting the better of him and compatriot Nina Stojanovic 7-6, 7-5 in the mixed doubles immediately after his singles. Saturday's consolation could be two bronzes.

"I feel terrible right now, in every sense," he added. "But it's a fresh start, I can recover and can at least win one medal for my country."

This was the first time in his career that Djokovic had played mixed doubles, perhaps reflecting his burning desire to land an Olympic gold any way he could. But the ultimate prize he craved was in the singles, and all the money was on him doing so. Djokovic had marched serenely into the semi-finals, not dropping a set in six matches to live up to his favourites tag after the withdrawal of a number of his rivals prior to the competition. His current winning run stood at 24 matches, dating back to his Italian Open final defeat to Rafael Nadal on May 16, while in Grand Slam and Olympic matches this year he was 27 and counting, having pocketed the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon titles.

It had started well too, taking the first set in 37 minutes and gaining the break at 3-2. But then the match flipped on its head and fourth seed Zverev reeled off eight games in a row to level the match and go a break up in the second.

All week Djokovic had made clear his displeasure at the Tokyo playing conditions - his complaints, alongside those of other players, forcing the start times to be delayed four hours from Thursday onwards on account of players' welfare. Combatting humidity has dogged him in the past - in 2009, he surrendered his Australian Open title when quitting his quarter-final with Andy Roddick after suffering from heat stress - but it was generally thought he had since solved whatever issues he had.

He finally gained a foothold at 4-1 in the decider but was powerless to prevent Zverev wrapping up three breaks of serve en route to the match.

Alexander Zverev of Team Germany celebrates victory after his Men's Singles Semifinal match against Novak Djokovic of Team Serbia on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Tennis Park on July 30, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan - Getty Images
Alexander Zverev of Team Germany celebrates victory after his Men's Singles Semifinal match against Novak Djokovic of Team Serbia on day seven of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Tennis Park on July 30, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan - Getty Images

The reward for Zverev is a gold-medal match against Karen Khachanov on Sunday after the Russian beat Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain 6-3, 6-3 in the other semi-final.

It means Steffi Graf, Zverev's compatriot, remains the only player to complete the Golden Slam back in 1988. "I told him that he's the greatest of all time, and he will be," said Zverev. "I know that he was chasing history. I feel sorry for Novak, but he's won 20 Grand Slams, 550 Masters series or whatever. You can't have everything."

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