NOvak Djokovic is his sport’s most stubborn obstacle – a great wall of skill, cunning and courage. And yet there were times in Sunday’s US Open final when it looked like he might actually give in, as he stood hunched over and slapped his thighs to give his legs momentum. At some point during an agonizingly long second set against Daniil Medvedev – “the physically hardest set I’ve ever had to play” he told CBS on Monday – Djokovic tried so hard to catch up with the Russian’s groundstrokes that he lost his footing and his racket flew through the air. When Medvedev himself fell and lay on the ground to catch himself, Djokovic went over the net to check on him. Before offering Medvedev a helping hand, it seemed as if Djokovic might want to lie down next to his opponent to catch his breath.
On paper, Djokovic’s straight-sets win over Medvedev makes it seem like becoming the oldest US Open winner was a piece of cake. But in reality he couldn’t wait for it to be over. “That’s maybe why I didn’t celebrate like I did in Roland Garros, didn’t fall to the ground or jump for joy,” he said after the final. “I was just so relieved when I saw his forehand in the net.”
The victory was the third Grand Slam tournament the Serbian has won this year and equals Margaret Court’s 24 career major titles. One shudders to think how much further ahead he would be if Covid had never happened and he hadn’t accidentally punched a US Open linesman in the throat in a fit of rage in 2020.
Unlike Court, who reigned when her home Open was a glorified national championship, Djokovic somehow found success in an era that looked like it would be defined by the rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. But now that Djokovic has a two-Slam lead over Nadal and Federer is retired, the question is no longer how many more titles he will win than those two. The 36-year-old can probably hold out for that long.
Don’t ask his coach Goran Ivanišević. The 2001 Wimbledon champion, who reached his peak late in his career, finally hung up his racket at 33 – three years younger than Djokovic is now. Ivanišević admits he misses Djokovic’s fanatical will to win.
“I can’t say that all of us from the Balkans are like that,” Ivanišević said after Sunday’s final, “because we are not.” He is someone who, who knows when (another) will be born, you know , such an athlete.”
Medvedev is an exceptional talent himself – he beat Djokovic in straight sets to claim the 2021 US Open title. Having lost the second leg this time, the 27-year-old had to laugh at the idea of comparing himself to the pro , who embraced him as a junior player. “What are you still doing here, come on,” Medvedev joked, addressing Djokovic in a post-match interview on Sunday. “I feel like if I had 20 titles I wouldn’t have a bad career. They have 24 Grand Slams. Wow.”
That feat is made all the more impressive when you consider that Djokovic didn’t come into the game with a family tree and came of age in a war-torn country, a story he returned to again and again over the course of the last two weeks. “The last thing you want to think about is maybe supporting your child in an expensive sport,” he said. “It was more about getting the bread on the kitchen table.”
It was only after Djokovic won his first major title in Melbourne and remained ranked No. 3 in the world for three seasons that he realized he was allergic to gluten. This discovery sparked a dedication to health and wellness that is unparalleled Tom Brady’s dubious TB12 method. The dividends were hard to miss on Sunday evening. For all his obvious physical problems, he still managed to overtake Medvedev in the long rallies and finish other rallies quicker by crossing the service line. Overall, Djokovic took 37 of 44 points at the net, while Medvedev got there half as often. “I should have been less stubborn and moved forward earlier in the game,” Medvedev said. “I only started doing it a little in the third set. But the game (until then) was a different story.”
When it was over, Djokovic, as expected, climbed into his box to celebrate with his team, but even there he allowed himself a moment to sit and let his coach Marco Panichi fan him with a towel.
He then slipped on a custom T-shirt that featured himself with Kobe Bryant, the late NBA star who inspired him to keep raising the bar. Nevertheless, Bryant gave up basketball at the age of 37. Ivanišević said Djokovic had already talked about playing in basketball Los Angeles Olympics in 2028, by which time Djokovic will be 41. Brady was 44 when he played his final NFL game; Apparently Djokovic, who has not yet set a precise timetable for the end of his career, believes he can easily beat this.
“Someday I’ll quit tennis one day in about 23, 24 years,” he joked. “And there will be new young players coming in. You’ll probably see me a little bit until then.”