Novak Djokovic has won so many Grand Slam singles titles in so many different ways, it is getting extremely difficult to keep track of them.
Djokovic, a Serb, further solidified his reputation as the greatest player of the modern era on Sunday with a clinical, straight-sets win over Daniil Medvedev of Russia. Floating across the court and swinging his racket with an ease and grace that top players a decade younger, and even more junior, can mostly only dream about, Djokovic took advantage of a flat start from Medvedev, then outlasted his friend in an epic second set and finally took apart his Monte Carlo neighbor, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3.
He did it on an Arthur Ashe Stadium court where he spent most of his career playing the villain in matches against underdogs or longtime crowd favorites like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Sunday was nothing like that. The nearly 24,000 spectators welcomed him with a massive roar, then showered him with the biggest one when Medvedev dumped a shot into the net to give Djokovic the title that has been surprisingly hard for the greatest hardcourt player in the sport’s history to win.
“This means the world to me,” he said to the crowd just before lifting the trophy for the fourth time of his career.
His turn from foil to protagonist had begun two years ago, near the end of a very different final against the same opponent. On that day, Djokovic walked onto the court trying to become the first man in more than 50 years to win all four Grand Slam tournament titles in a calendar year.
Medvedev’s straight-set upset was all but sealed that day when Djokovic was uncharacteristically flat, yet a stadium filled to witness history swaddled Djokovic with a kind of love he had never felt in New York. He sobbed in his chair as it washed over him before the final game.
Djokovic missed the U.S. Open last year because of the federal government’s rule prohibiting foreign visitors who had not been vaccinated against Covid-19 to enter the country. He set foot on American soil for the first time in nearly two years in mid-August to play the Western & Southern Open near Cincinnati. He quickly realized that the love he felt during the 2021 U.S. Open final had not faded.
Djokovic needed every bit of that support Sunday, when, while seemingly on cruise control midway through the second set, Medvedev reverted to form. After a mistake-filled set and a half, the Russian with arms like an octopus and the legs of a gazelle cleaned the errors out of his game, ramped up his serve and did that very effective imitation of a backboard that has previously lifted him to the pinnacle of the sport.
Points that lasted longer than 20 shots became routine in a match with its share of 30-shot rallies, and suddenly Djokovic’s legs began to go, like a boxer jarred from a shot to the jaw. He leaned on his racket between points, gasping for breath. He rubbed his head with a bag of ice between games.
“I was losing air on so many occasions,” he said. “I don’t recall ever being so exhausted after rallies.”
Serving to stay in the second set at 5-6, he stretched his legs before tossing balls in the air. He heaved as he ran for shots, saving set point with two soft volleys.
“He was tired,” Medvedev said. “I was all over him.”
On to a decisive tiebreaker they went, and even that, like so many points in this video game of a match, went back and forth. Medvedev got within two points of drawing even, winning a lung-searing drop shot exchange. But then, like he had so many times before, Djokovic played three consecutive mistake-free points.
When Medvedev bunted a backhand into the net, 104 minutes after the set began, Djokovic had gained a two-set lead, an advantage he has coughed up only once in his career, 13 years ago, before he turned into himself into the nearly indomitable player he would become.
He sauntered slowly to his chair, grabbed his bag and headed off the court for a toilet break. Medvedev took off his shirt and called for a trainer, who massaged his shoulders, though after what he had endured during the course of the previous hour and a half, a brain massage was what he really needed.
When he returned to the court, Djokovic was floating once more, the adrenaline of another championship and record in sight delivering a rediscovered spring in his step. He flew toward the net, taking advantage of an opponent who plays so deep in the court he often looks like he is about to hit the back wall on his backswing. No one was going to take this sweet return to America away from Djokovic this time.
It seems every time he plays a tournament these days he sets a record in men’s tennis, and usually he is besting one of his own. Djokovic began the year in Melbourne, where he won a record 10th Australian Open title. Sunday brought his 24th Grand Slam singles title, upping his men’s record of 23 that he set at the French Open in June.
On Friday he played in a record 47th Grand Slam semifinal, one more than Federer. Three weeks ago he won a record 39th title at a Masters 1000 tournament, the events just below the level of the Grand Slams. On Sunday he played in his 36th Grand Slam final.
His performance at the U.S. Open guaranteed even before he took the court for his final matches that he would wake up Monday morning as the No. 1 player in the world, reclaiming the top spot from Carlos Alcaraz, the 20-year-old Spanish sensation. That will mark his 390th week at the top of the sport. He already had that record, too.
“What are you still doing here,” Medvedev, 27, said to Djokovic, 36, who has been keeping him from winning titles since he first broke into the top levels of tennis six years ago.
Toweling off in a corner of the court before serving for match point, catching his breath for one final time, Djokovic looked at the fans in the front rows and nodded his head, his eyes wide. Moments later he was kneeling on the court, his shoulders shaking as tears flowed once more. When he rose he walked over to the stands and lifted his daughter, Tara, who is 6 and barely able to sit through a tennis match. She often colors in books on the floors of stadiums while her father is playing.
“Tennis is not really her thing,” he said with a grin and quizzical look earlier this year.
It is now. She watched from the side of the court on Sunday, and Djokovic said whenever he needed a lift he looked over to see her smiling and pumping a fist, and he believed all would be well.
Then came the embraces with the rest of his family in the stands. When he returned to the court, he swapped out his sweaty kit for a shirt with a picture of him and Kobe Bryant, his sports hero, friend, and sometimes mentor, whose jersey number was 24 when he ended his N.B.A. career. That number was on the back of Djokovic’s shirt.
“It is a pity about Wimbledon, couple of points either way,” said his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, lamenting Djokovic’s lone loss in 28 Grand Slam matches this year, in five sets to Alcaraz in July. Ivanisevic said he and Djokovic never talked about that loss after that day. “That’s what makes him great.”
Days before this tournament, Djokovic reflected on the heartbreaking but heartwarming day two years ago when Medvedev stopped him one match shy of perhaps the ultimate tennis achievement. He still felt the warmth from the New York crowd that had finally taken to him.
“They love sport and they also love when they are experiencing something special,” he said. “They genuinely backed me up and wanted me to win and wanted me to make history.”
In retrospect, he said, he buckled under the weight of that, as he has rarely done.
This time around, Djokovic prohibited his family from mentioning anything about history, opting to keep this match as simple and as clear as it could be.
The New York fans had to wait two years to see it, but on Sunday they finally did. Chances are they may see it again.