Pablo Carreño Busta, a highly ranked Spaniard who has twice reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open but never broken through in a big way on the professional tour, beat Novak Djokovic, the top men’s player in the world, for a bronze medal at the Tokyo Games on Saturday.
Carreño Busta outlasted Djokovic, 6-4, 6-7 (6), 6-3, in a marathon match where Djokovic unraveled in the third set, chucking one racket onto a concourse above a section of empty seats and banging another against the net post in front of the chair umpire after falling behind, 3-0.
After winning the match, which lasted 2 hours and 39 minutes, Carreño Busta dropped to the floor and spread his arms and legs, much like Djokovic has done time and again after securing his 20 Grand Slam wins. After getting up, Carreño Busta greeted Djokovic at the net, then lay on the floor in front of his courtside bench.
“I thought especially about my family, about all the people that love me, that suffer next to me, that sacrifice themselves to support me,” Carreño Busta said through an interpreter after the win. He added: “I’ve come to Tokyo in a good physical and mental moment.”
Djokovic, by losing, failed to medal in the singles tournament after entering the Olympics with a chance to be the first man to complete a Golden Slam by winning gold for Serbia along with the four major Grand Slam tournaments in the same calendar year. Djokovic — the most dominant professional player right now — won the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon this year. The U.S. Open begins in late August, a few weeks after the Olympic closing ceremony.
It was the second win for Carreño Busta over Djokovic, but the only one to end on a match point. Last year, Carreño Busta was outplaying Djokovic in the U.S. Open when Djokovic hit a ball out of frustration that nailed a line judge in the throat. Djokovic, the clear favorite in the tournament, was immediately disqualified.
Both players were eliminated in their semifinals on Friday, seemingly as favorites. Yet it will be Alexander Zverev of Germany (who beat Djokovic) facing Karen Khachanov of Russia on Sunday for the gold.
Carreño Busta, who had two previous tour wins, won the first set, 6-4, after securing an early break of Djokovic’s serve. Djokovic won the second in a tiebreaker, 7-6 (6), by outlasting Carreño Busta in several long rallies, including one that could have given Carreño Busta the match in straight sets.
Both players dealt with stifling heat throughout the contest: 90 degrees and humid, even in the shade of center court, with what felt like the full force of the sun bearing down on the hardcourt for the first two hours. It was only at the beginning of the third set that their court was fully covered in shade.
Tennis players up and down each draw have struggled throughout these tournaments to cope with the heat. Their only moments of relief on center court, it seems, come when they sit under large white umbrellas on each changeover, where they can have a cold drink and use a large circular hose that blows cold air.
The men’s match is the first course in a triple-header on center court. Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan plays Elina Svitolina of Ukraine for a bronze medal, then Belinda Bencic of Switzerland faces Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic on Saturday night.
Djokovic was expected to play a second bronze medal match on Saturday night: a mixed doubles contest partnered with Nina Stojanovic.