FEATURE: The best Novak Djokovic matches of a brilliant 2021 season

It is perhaps credit to the sublime tennis of Novak Djokovic that his excellent 2021 season is not being heralded as it should.

Maybe, because he came so achingly close to the near-impossible feat of achieving the Calendar Year Grand Slam across three different surfaces, the loss he suffered in the final of the US Open has garnered almost more attention than his 27 Slam match wins this year.

However, when you look at it carefully, he put together one of the most sensational tennis seasons in history.

With him due to return to action at the Paris Masters next week, we pick out the 10 best matches of the Serb’s brilliant 2021 season – so far.

Taylor Fritz, Round 3, Australian Open

After a challenging 2020 for Djokovic which saw Wimbledon cancelled, defaulting at the US Open, and a hammering by Nadal in the Roland Garros final, he was hoping for a smooth path to Slam glory in the first major of the year.

It was anything but, with Djokovic sustaining an abdominal tear during his third round encounter with Taylor Fritz.

Fritz probably couldn’t believe his luck when, trailing 2-0 in sets in the third set, Djokovic suddenly couldn’t stretch or get balls back as he usually does.

A medical timeout didn’t seem to help matters for the world number one and before we knew it, Fritz had taken sets three and four.

We were looking at the very real prospect of an upset until Djokovic decided he was not going to let misfortune get in the way of another Slam title.

Somehow, he put his physical issues aside to get over the finishing line. “This is definitely one of the most special wins of my life,” Djokovic said after the match.

“Doesn’t matter what round it is and against who it is. Under these kind of circumstances to pull this through is definitely something I’ll remember forever.”

Daniil Medvedev, Final, Australian Open

This match features here not for the competitiveness of the match but the superb matchplay of Djokovic.

Coming into this match, not only had Djokovic been pushed to the limit by continuing to play with an abdominal tear, but he was up against a player who was coming off a 20-match winning  streak.

Daniil Medvedev had won the Paris Masters 1000 tournament at the tail-end of 2020, followed by the ATP finals and had now just helped his Russian teammates lift the ATP Cup.

The match was billed as a blockbuster and it was doubtful that Djokovic would be able to fend off the hard court specialist without bringing his A Game.

Unluckily for Medvedev, Djokovic did bring his A game. He won his 18th Grand Slam title with a stunning 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 victory.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, QF, Italian Open

This is the only non-Grand Slam match we are including. It’s here simply because the fight that Novak showed to win this tussle was pretty incredible and the standard of tennis from both players even higher.

If Djokovic was looking to an indicator of his form on clay ahead of Roland Garros, he sure got it.

The match was played over two days due to an overnight rain stoppage. Djokovic was a set down and 1-2 down when play was halted, but he came back the next day to take the second set.

He then twice came back from a break down in the final set – once when Stefanos Tsitsipas was serving for the match – to steal victory.

“Without a doubt, until the last shot I didn’t know whether I was going to win but I believed that I could,” said Djokovic after the battle that lasted 3 hours and 15 minutes.

“I am just really, really glad to overcome this challenge. It was probably the toughest match of the year for me so far.”

Lorenzo Musetti, Round 4, Roland Garros

Djokovic had strolled into the fourth round of the French Open with fairly routine straight-set wins versus the likes of Tennys Sandgren, Pablo Cuevas, and Ricardas Berankis.

The Serb had never played rising Italian star Lorenzo Musetti before and although plenty expected a bit of trouble, few were expecting to see Djokovic lose two consecutive tie-breaks to go 0-2 sets down.

An upset looked to be on the cards but then Djokovic simply shifted gear. He turned it on against a flailing Musetti, winning 13 of the last 14 games to take the final 3 sets 6-1, 6-4 and 4-0 before an exhausted Italian handed the world number one a walkover.

After three-and-a-half-hours, he simply couldn’t carry on. The legs were gone and so too, it seems, if you ask Andy Roddick at least, Musetti’s soul.

Matteo Berrettini, QF, Roland Garros

While Matteo Berrettini got a walkover due to Roger Federer pulling out of the tournament to ‘practise for Wimbledon’, Djokovic was coming into this match off the back of that thrilling five-setter against Musetti.

There was undoubtedly going to be a bit of fight here since Berrettini was showing good form, but the late-night drama that ensued was not forecast.

Djokovic was leading 5-4 in the third set tiebreak when he committed a couple of errors to hand his opponent the set.

The crowd got involved and Berrettini was soon back in the running. The late-night match, which started out in front of 5000 spectators but ended in silence due to a Parisian COVID curfew, was full of tension.

Upon victory, Djokovic let out a primal scream, laced with pure emotional and relief, as he edged the tight 4th set 7-5.

Although Djokovic didn’t drop a service game on his way to the victory that took three-and-a-half hours, it was anything but straightforward for the world number one.

Rafael Nadal, SF, Roland Garros

Their 58th matchup between these two iconic rivals was one that few could call. Djokovic had been destroyed by Rafael Nadal in the 2020 RG final in straight sets, and many expected a similar fate in 2021.

When Djokovic went down 0-5 in Set 1, social media was flooded with bagel memes. The dropshots weren’t working, once again, and it was looking to be a repeat of Nadal’s 6-0 first set from the 2020 final.

Somehow, Djokovic managed to get a toe in the first set. He broke Nadal’s serve for the first time to get to 5-2. Of course he wasn’t going to win the set, but the fact that he remained patient and waited for his chances showed Nadal that he wasn’t going anywhere.

Nadal took the first set 6-3, but Djokovic managed to turn the tables by putting up a fierce fight in a tense and tight second set to clinch it 6-3.

The third set was a mini match in itself and could go down as the most sensational set of tennis in history. Lasting a whole 98 minutes, it was impossible to predict who would claim it as we watched from the edge of our seats.

Nadal had the chance to take it at 6-5, but a stunning Djokovic dropshot denied him. A fluffed forehand by Nadal in the tiebreak gave Djokovic the opportunity to steal the set to go two sets to one up.

From then on, there was nothing the Spaniard could do. Fully in control, Djokovic took the fourth set 6-2 and became the only man to beat Nadal twice at Roland Garros and keep his own dream of the double career Grand Slam alive.

The physically demanding match lasted an incredible 4 hours 11 minutes and is undoubtedly one of the best matches ever to be played on Court Philippe Chatrier.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, Final, Roland Garros

So now that Djokovic had done the hard part and taken out the immovable King of Clay in the semis, the final was just a formality, right?

Djokovic’s hardcore fans were not daring to believe it just yet. They had been here before. When Djokovic took out Nadal in the Quarter Finals of RG in 2015, he was expected to walk to the title. Stan Wawrinka, though, had other plans on that occasion.

It seemed as though history was repeating itself as well when the Serb lost his nerve during an edgy first-set tiebreak and then inexplicably lost the second set 6-2.

The momentum was firmly with the Greek – there was no way Djokovic would be able to take the next three sets against one of the world’s most in-form, fit, and mentally tough opponents?

After some gruelling matches on the physically demanding surface of clay, surely Tsitsipas would see to it that his opponent – a decade older – would be defeated swiftly and easily?

Not to be.

Djokovic decided he was not going to lose another French Open title in the final after beating Nadal. Somehow, incredibly, he clinched the title – his 19th Grand Slam as well as the historic Double Career Grand Slam that neither of his two rivals, Federer or Nadal, have managed to do.

The final score was 6-7, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4. Eerily, the duration of this match? 4 hours 11 minutes….

Denis Shapovalov, SF, Wimbledon

While Djokovic’s form was unconvincing during his run-up to meeting Denis Shapovalov in the semi-finals of Wimbledon, few expected the young Canadian to really challenge the grass court prowess and experience of the five-time Wimbledon Champion.

But that is exactly what the young gun did during this scintillating match.

The crowd, as it often does during Djokovic matches, played its part as it backed Shapovalov to pull off the upset, and his hard-hitting shots genuinely tested the world number one.

The match was much tougher and more hotly contested than the 7-6, 7-5, 7-5 scoreline suggested, leaving a dispirited Shapovalov to exit Centre Court in tears.

Matteo Berrettini, Final, Wimbledon

Although not the best match on this list by any stretch of the imagination, this is the one that finally took Novak Djokovic to 20 Slams to level his rivals, Federer and Nadal.

The Italian hadn’t been able to trouble Djokovic too much in his first two matches against him, but grass looked likely to be his best chance.

The strong serve of Berrettini combined with his brutal forehand could give him some free and easy points against Djokovic who would probably also be feeling the pressure of reaching the 20-Slam milestone.

And so it proved to be the case when a tight Djokovic failed to serve out the first set. Despite having been 5-2 up at one point, the world number one with the burden of history on his shoulders, allowed Berrettini back into the set and then run away with it in the first set tiebreak.

Somehow, Djokovic – as on countless occasions before – put the disappointment of losing the first set aside to steel himself and fend off the challenge, scoring a 6-7, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory and another place in the history books.

Alexander Zverev, Semi Final, US Open

This match lived up to everything people thought it would. Alexander Zverev had already troubled Djokovic in the Australian Open QF during a 3.5 hour dogfight that the Serb was lucky to edge out.

Most crucially, the German had recently broken Djokovic’s heart by beating the Serb from a set and a break down in the semi finals of the Olympics. That match denied Djokovic the chance of a much-yearned-for gold medal and killed off his hope of the Golden Slam.

Djokovic had to put his body, mind and soul into this match. It turned into a five-set classic with neither man deserving to lose. The match had everything and more.

In the end, Djokovic prevailed 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 to go within one match of the calendar Grand Slam.

It wasn’t to be. Medvedev beat Djokovic in straight sets and the effort it had taken to overcome Zverev could well have been one of the factors, as well as the accumulative effect of spending so many more hours on court in the run-up to the final than his Russian opponent.

All in all, a stunning year. And it’s not even over yet!

Big finish to come for Djokovic?

Djokovic understandably took a break after the US Open but history still beckons for him.

He can secure a record seventh year-end world number one as well as a record equalling sixth ATP Finals title before the end of 2022.

He is also committed to leading Serbia in the Davis Cup, so plenty more moments to look forward to.

Looking ahead, will Djokovic attempt the Calendar Year Grand Slam in 2022? And will any of the big three finally achieve a 21st Slam title which has proved so elusive for all of them so far?

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