Expanding later, Djokovic said the majority sentiment in the locker room is that players do not want the season to proceed if quarantine is non-negotiable. He catalogued the leading players who have struggled here: himself, Rafael Nadal, Zverev, Grigor Dmitrov and Matteo Berrettini, to start with.
“What we’re seeing now is not normal,” he said. “Top players are the ones who are the fittest. It’s been proven that’s the case.”
Djokovic said he had not practised between his last match and this, and would not practise before his semi-final against mystery Russian Aslan Karatsev, the first player to reach a major championship semi-final at the first attempt. Djokovic had never seen him play before this tournament.
Zverev won the first set of this match and had points for double breaks in the third and fourth, but somehow came away empty-handed. It leaves him where he has dwelled for the last few years, as the next man, the nearly man, but not yet the man. Djokovic was gracious. “If he was to win this match, it wouldn’t have been undeserved,” he said.
Lasting more than three-and-a-half hours, it was a match in which momentum fluctuated throughout, and with it emotion. No doubt it prompted a virtual standing ovation.
The early manoeuvres were played out in solemn silence. Djokovic began as if wanting a quick end, one way or another. The speed of the court would help. He lost his serve on the back of two double faults in the opening game of the match and looked for all the world as if he was just meeting a contractual obligation.
Not so. “With this type of condition,” he explained later, “I need time to warm up. It takes time [to] feel like I can rotate well.”
His face was stony, giving nothing away. Zverev always has a slightly vacant look, which is misleading. It was a staring match. But Djokovic clenched his stomach and his game, and in the 10th game broke back to force a tie-breaker. Zverev won it, but it felt like no more than an early lead.
Djokovic dominated the second set, losing only three points on serve. It was a roll, but it didn’t last. Zverev crashed through Djokovic’s serve at the start of the third set and seized control.
Here was the fulcrum. Djokovic was troubled. Waiting for Zverev to change racquets, he sat down at the back of the court, seemingly dejected. When another point escaped him, he dashed his racquet into the court, incurring a code violation. Sealing that game, Zverev roared a “c’mon” into the silence. As much as can be in tennis, it was in Djokovic’s face.
But it was Djokovic, defying appearances, who rose like Lazarus. “I regained my focus after I broke that racquet,” he said, a little sheepishly. “Things started to shift for me in a positive direction.
“It was a relief for me, but I would not recommend this kind of relief-channelling. Of course, I’m not proud of it. I have my own demons to fight with, and I’m sure that everyone else has theirs, too, and has their own way of fighting them. I don’t intentionally do it. Today, it actually helped.”
Exploiting a rare pair of Zverev double faults, he surged on to win the last five games of the set. Now it was Djokovic who roared. That would have tested any weakness in his thorax.
Still the contest refused to regularise. Zverev had three points for a two-break in the fourth set, and Djokovic then appeared to be missing the spur of a stadium in ferment. He glared at his support crew, a proxy. But Zverev didn’t take his chances, and Djokovic levelled.
Somehow, when fatigue should have shown, the standard rose. Against likelihood, Zverev held a point. It was his last hurrah. It went to another tie-breaker. Djokovic’s fastest serve of the night took him to his first match point, and although Zverev saved it, a Djokovic ace put an end to it. As noted by Djokvic, he actually out-aced Zverev on the night.
“There was nothing in it,” he said. “There were a lot of nerves, a lot of pressure. Emotionally, I feel a little bit drained.”
Relieved, Djokovic made his usual four-points bow the phantom crowds. It was a little comical, but it was the last laugh.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.