In his troubled quest to progress beyond the last eight of a Grand Slam, the German No.5 seed took more games from Djokovic in one set than anyone else has yet managed at Roland-Garros 2019, and even served for the opening chapter.
Djokovic too strong for Zverev
No.1 seed overcomes a tight first set before dismissing Alexander Zverev in the quarter-finals.
But it was a false dawn outshone by Djokovic's own resurgence, stoking the fires of his game into an indomitable blaze even as Zverev’s turned to ashes.
Gaining strength even faster than Zverev’s challenge drained away, Djokovic took it 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 to reach his first Roland-Garros semi-final since 2016, the year he lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires, extending his match winning streak in Grand Slams to 26.
The No.1 seed will play last year’s runner-up Dominic Thiem for a place in the final, one step nearer to becoming the only man in the Open Era to hold all four Grand Slam titles twice.
"The longer I play in my career or the further I go, the sense of history-making is only getting stronger," said Djokovic, as he looked ahead.
"That's one of the greatest motivations I have, obviously. I think there is no better way to make history of the sport than to win slams and play your best in the biggest events, and obviously try to stay No. 1 as long as you can. Results-wise, those are the pinnacle achievements that you can have in our sport."
Tellingly, a key reason why Zverev could run him so close in that initial set was that Djokovic's first serve was below the usual formidable standards. Having won 84% of points on it through the first four rounds here, early in this match he was down at 62% – and even then, Zverev was at full stretch to capitalise.
He got within two points of becoming the first player to unburden Djokovic of a set this fortnight, before Djokovic coolly outclassed him in a six-strong run of games which reaped not only the first set but the opening three of the second. Zverev surrendered the first set with a truly dreadful second serve which left his challenge like a punctured balloon.
Still greater embarrassment lay ahead. Serving at 2-5 in the second and holding game point, he delivered three successive double faults. The crowd, who little more than half an hour previously had been buzzing with the thrill of the contest, were now emitting that funereal murmur traditionally heard at times of private grief.
By then Djokovic’s percentage of points from his first serve had rocketed into the 80s, and there it stayed. Zverev battled on, even acquiring break points in the penultimate game of the match, but his mortal wounds were plain.
Congratulated afterwards by one journalist on “another good Roland-Garros” for reaching the last eight, a desolate Zverev politely demurred.
“From the seedings, I should be in the quarters,” he pointed out. “I’m at a stage where I could go further. But once the first set slipped away, it was difficult to play him.
“I really thought that the first set should have gone my way. And then I played three really bad games [at the start of the second]. Once he's in control, he's very tough to beat. He's World No. 1 for a reason.”