He is human, after all.
With the weight of history on his shoulders, and having gone 27-0 in Grand Slam matches this year, Novak Djokovic produced the most un-Novak Djokovic performance in arguably the most important match of his career. Flat, full of errors, finished in just over two hours, and so one-sided that the New York crowd even had to urge on Djokovic.
While Daniil Medvedev celebrated the first Grand Slam victory of his career, Djokovic must be left wondering how his quest for a record-breaking 21st came unstuck in such a fashion.
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Not that Medvedev didn’t play well or deserve it; he did. His serving was terrific throughout, winning 82 per cent of points behind his imposing first serve, with the flat one down the middle particularly effectively. He also converted four of eight break points and finished with just 24 unforced errors. The only statistic that Djokovic had the better of was points won at the net – but his moves forward seemed to borne out of necessity, because he couldn’t compete with Medvedev from the back of the court.
Djokovic has been often been described as super-human, but here he looked tired.
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It was almost expected that he would drop the first set, given it was the 10th time he has done so during his Calendar Slam bid, and the fifth time in the past fortnight. But every other time there has been a response, this time there wasn’t. He had the chances early in the second set, getting to 0-40 on Medvedev’s first service game and then getting two more break-point opportunities at 2-1. Not only did he not convert any of the break points, but he didn’t really look like doing so.
There were slices into the net, short forehands dumped into the net, and a racquet that was smashed to pieces as Djokovic’s frustration boiled over for the first time in the tournament. As the match wore on the anger seemed to dissipate, with a missed routine volley on break point in the third set met more with an acceptance that this was it, and it was not going to be his day. There was a late flourish as Djokovic broke for the first time in the match and got to experience what it is like to be roared on by a Grand Slam final crowd. His emotional reaction as he was applauded afterwards showed what that meant to him, but that was perhaps the only positive he will take from a surprisingly one-sided match.
But it was only a surprise because it was Djokovic. He has seemed physically and mentally invincible at so many times during his career, but the build-up to this final had been far from ideal. There was the heartbreak in Tokyo as he not only missed out on a first Olympic gold medal of his career but also a medal of any colour. He faced criticism for withdrawing from the mixed doubles bronze medal match, denying his partner Nina Stojanovic a chance to win a medal, and then had a month without any competitive tennis after opting not to play again a warm-up tournament ahead of the US Open. He will likely never admit to any regrets over playing in Tokyo considering his passionate desire to win gold for Serbia, but there was always the risk that it was going to impact his bid to win a fourth Grand Slam of the year.
Dropped sets in the early rounds in New York was brushed off as “almost a strategy”, but the sluggish performance in the final suggested that energy levels were indeed running low. If Djokovic could have arrived fresher for the final he would. While Medvedev breezed through his half of the draw, dropping just one set and spending only 11 hours and 51 minutes on court, Djokovic dropped six sets and played for 17 hours and 26 minutes, which included a gruelling five-set semi-final match against Alexander Zverev. That he beat Zverev seems even more impressive now, even though it also seems to have sapped his final energy reserves. There must also have been some mental fatigue with the amount of history on his shoulders and relentless talk about what he might be about to accomplish. After his semi-final win over Zverev he cut off a question about the records at stake by saying “I’m going for a fourth US Open, that’s all I’m thinking about”, while he had admitted earlier in the tournament that thinking about the Calendar Slam had become a "burden".
After the final he said he was "glad it was over". "The build-up for this tournament and everything mentally and emotionally I had to deal with the last two weeks was just a lot...it was a lot to handle. I was glad that finally the run was over."
Will Djokovic be back on this stage? Almost certainly. His emotional interaction with the crowd after the match was reminiscent to when he lost in the final of the French Open in 2015, having seemingly been poised to end his long wait to win the tournament for the first time. The following year he returned and won. But is there also a chance he will hit a block like Serena Williams has in her quest for history? The American, whose own Calendar Slam bid came undone in remarkable fashion in New York in 2015, has lost her last four major finals as she aims to equal Margaret Court’s all-time record.
Daniil Medvedev - US Open 2021
Image credit: Getty Images
Medvedev could be a formidable opponent in Djokovic’s quest to win his 21st major. The 25-year-old has now won four of his last six meetings with the world No 1 and will be a tough out if he serves as well as he has done all tournament. Prior to the final he had won at least 80 per cent of his first-serve points in five of six matches, and against Djokovic he won all 15 of his first-serve points in the opening set. There was a wobble at the end as he looked to close things out, but with one Grand Slam win under his belt he may now have the confidence to go on to greater things.
Just as fascinating as following Medvedev’s journey from here will be seeing where Djokovic goes. Will he win No 21 in Australia, where he has dominated over the last few years, or will the wait go on and the pressure continue to build?
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