"I had to stay patient, stay focused, and I played really great tennis in the second and third set".
Zverev played a defensive forehand slice to set up a chance to finish the point with a backhand lob, but his attempt drifted just wide and Djokovic held on for 5-4.
Few anticipated such a blurred scenario after the Guga Kuerten group completed their second circuit.
He will advance into the last four of the season-ending tournament for the eighth time if John Isner beats Marin Cilic in the evening session. There were two important factors.
The Croat, who has won just two of 11 matches in four appearances at the event, triumphed 6-7 (2-7) 6-3 6-4.
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The following statement was also provided to address today's sudden change of stance. Ubisoft said players in Asia will still have "the same game as the other players".
The net game always looked unsafe for Zverev and so it proved as he double-faulted to concede the set. Isner had more nerves in the tie-break and gained a lead.
"I hope you enjoyed the match. Gone but never forgotten". It could inspire him to great feats, it could drain his spirit and make him long to be home.
The five-time champion saved two break points at 4-4 in the opening set and then broke Zverev in the following game to take the lead.
Djokovic saved the first with heavy serve but then double-faulted, offering Zverev another glimpse.
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Thus refreshed, he bounced some energy into his legs and Zverev gave him the opening he sought.
Zverev then made a spate of errors in the next game to bring up set point for Djokovic, and double-faulted to hand the Serb the lead. "Especially in the second set he wasn't close to his best".
How was it, the world No1 was afterwards asked, that the older players were dominating the younger players here?
"Maybe he was a little bit sick or something like that, " Zverev said.
"I think I'll take it as a normal quarter-final match at a normal tournament". Zverev is obviously the leader of that next generation. He has proven himself, established himself as a top player.
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He already owns three Masters 1000 titles though, including this year on clay in Madrid.