NEW YORK — Over the past decade, Novak Djokovic has set about transforming himself into an athlete with virtually no tactical, physical or psychological weakness.
His endgame was audacious: to not only insert himself into the two-way conversation of tennis greatness being waged by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal but to stake his claim as the greatest man ever to play the game.
Sunday’s U.S. Open final represented the last step, but it was derailed by Daniil Medvedev, who staged a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 upset that halted Djokovic’s bid for the Grand Slam, which hasn’t been achieved by a man since Rod Laver in 1969, and denied the men’s record 21st major that would have broken Djokovic’s three-way tie with Federer and Nadal.
With Medvedev’s victory, achieved in a ruthlessly efficient 2 hours 15 minutes before a capacity crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium that had come to witness history, the debate over the greatest man to play the game will no doubt continue.
Gracious in victory, Medvedev offered his opinion during his post-match remarks. Speaking directly to Djokovic, he said, “To me, you are the greatest tennis player in history.”
At 34, Djokovic is not finished with his career and is likely to have multiple opportunities to win a 21st major, or more. But the chance at a Grand Slam — winning all four majors in a single year — may not come again. It requires 28 consecutive Grand Slam victories to claim the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Djokovic managed 27.
With neither Federer, 40, nor Nadal, 35, competing at the U.S. Open, Djokovic’s final hurdle was second-ranked Medvedev — a 25-year-old, lean, lanky 6-foot-6 Russian with a massive serve and forehand.
Medvedev came out blazing, strafing the court with forehand blasts and a barrage of aces. He broke Djokovic’s serve in the opening game and never eased off.
The Russian waged an all-out attack at lightning tempo, pummeling the top-ranked Djokovic, who seemed uncharacteristically tentative and a step slow at the outset, as if he were a dazed prizefighter on the ropes.
Less than seven months earlier, Djokovic had routed Medvedev in straight sets to claim the Australian Open title and his 18th major, setting in motion this quest for the Grand Slam. That victory in Melbourne took less than two hours.
But Medvedev did some mental and physical work on himself, too, after that undressing, conceding this past week that he had failed to “leave my heart on the court” during the match. Having secured his third opportunity to win a first Grand Slam title in Sunday’s final, Medvedev vowed to spill all he had on court against Djokovic.
The 25,703 fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium, which included Laver and a slew of luminaries from the sports and entertainment worlds, spilled their lungs on Djokovic’s behalf. Like the Serbian, they had no interest in going down without a fight. But against Medvedev’s unrelenting assault, there was only so much that the crowd — and Djokovic — could do.
Medvedev blasted 16 aces and fended off five of six break points against the game’s best returner.
He set the no-mercy tone at the outset, closing the first set in 36 minutes. The second set flew by much the same, with Djokovic’s frustration mounting.
After plowing a volley into the net on a hard-earned break point, Djokovic cocked his arm as if to smash the ball in anger, conjuring memories of the outburst that had gotten him disqualified at the 2020 U.S. Open for inadvertently hitting a lineswoman with a ball struck in frustration. This time, he caught himself, only to smash his racket moments later after failing to convert a clutch of break points. It drew an official warning from the chair umpire.
In short order, Djokovic was two sets in arrears.
He had trailed in earlier matches with the Grand Slam bid at stake. In June, he clawed back from a two-sets-to-none deficit against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the French Open final. And in four consecutive matches leading up to Sunday’s final here, he ceded the opening set.
But his ability to fight back wasn’t there against Medvedev, who scarcely gave Djokovic a chance to breathe as he blasted ball after ball past him.
Medvedev’s only hiccup came when he twice served for the match and double-faulted both times. For Djokovic, the reprieve was brief. Upon clinching the victory, Medvedev fell on his side on the court.
After the two shared an embrace at the net, Djokovic retreated to his courtside chair, buried his head under a towel and wept.
“Tennis is such a brutal sport where there is no room for error when you’re playing top guys,” Medvedev said afterward. “I am a top guy; he is a top guy. ... It’s always about the small details. He definitely was not at his best; we saw him playing better. The question is, if he would be [at his best], would I be able to [keep] up with him? We can never know now.”
Djokovic had been vocal about his goal of winning the Grand Slam — a pronouncement some viewed as hubris. In an interview with the Associated Press, Laver, 83, questioned whether announcing his Grand Slam aspiration would cost Djokovic, adding needless pressure to an already herculean task.
In the end, it wasn’t hubris that felled Djokovic. Physical and mental fatigue did it — not to a debilitating extent but just enough to leave him a step slow, which represented chum in the water to the attack-minded Medvedev.
“I was just below par with my game,” Djokovic said. “My legs were not there.”
Djokovic’s eyes were red as he addressed the crowd during his on-court remarks. He began by congratulating Medvedev on an “amazing, amazing match” and tournament. “If there is anyone who deserves a Grand Slam title right now, it’s you,” Djokovic said.
Then he thanked the New York crowd, which has rooted against him often over the years.
“Even though I have not won the match, my heart is filled with joy,” he said. “I’m the happiest man alive because you guys made me feel very special on the court. You guys touched my soul. I’ve never felt like this in New York.”
— Liz Clarke
Find highlights from Sunday’s match, by Ava Wallace in Washington, below.
Third set: Signs of life from Djokovic as Medvedev leads 4-1
Though he doesn’t appear to have much fight left at this point, Djokovic won at least one game in the third set while Medvedev continues his all-out rampage. It looks as though the 20-time Grand Slam trophy winner has nearly run out of gas.
Those alarm bells from earlier might be ringing just a bit now. Djokovic looks — improbably — physically overmatched by Medvedev, perhaps the result of spending an extra five hours on court throughout his U.S. Open. Medvedev is chasing down every shot and coming up with winners while Djokovic has yet to break his younger opponent. This is getting away from him quickly.
What a set. Medvedev was so steady in the rallies, making Djokovic hit one more shot and forcing the error, and came up with huge first serves seemingly whenever he needed them. Djokovic is a master of resetting and has no problem coming back from two sets down, but he looked frustrated — earning a code violation after smashing his racket — and at times tired while Medvedev displayed his full complement of shots.
Novak Djokovic's path to 27-0 in Grand Slam matches this year included four five-setters, two in which he trailed two sets to love (Lorenzo Musetti, Stefanos Tsitsipas). That's the only path now, of course.
Well that was an eventful few games! Medvedev won a 27-shot rally and fended off a couple of break points to keep things even at 2-2 as Djokovic let off some steam with a massive racket smash that separated the frame. Maybe a release of some nerves and frustration is going to be just what he needed.
Medvedev then earned a gigantic break with more solid, lengthy rallies.
The star-studded crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium — including Brad Pitt, Bradley Cooper, Gayle King, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, Spike Lee and Alec Baldwin — feels to be living and dying with each point. The atmosphere feels intense.
That didn’t take long, but then again, Novak Djokovic is used to playing from behind. Daniil Medvedev converted an early break to give himself a nice start against the Serb, closing the final game out with a pair of aces, but it’s a long haul to beat Djokovic in five (Medvedev should know, he’s never done it).
The thing to remember here is it’s early. Far too many players have tricked themselves into getting comfortable after early leads in five-set matches against veterans. The important thing for Medvedev to keep his level exactly that high while Djokovic will, almost undoubtedly, raise his own.
How often have we seen Novak Djokovic double fault in a major final? Even for a player who has dropped the first set in each of his past four matches, that was a bit of a shaky start from the 20-time Grand Slam champion. No one’s better at righting himself mid-match than Djokovic (and one little break isn’t anything monumental) so there is certainly no reason for alarm, but perhaps this tells us that the Serb is feeling the weight of the moment.
Even so, he closed out the third game with a nice ace.
Rod Laver will award the U.S. Open trophy Sunday. Who else has completed the Grand Slam?
Because tournament organizers have a proper sense of occasion, Australian legend Rod Laver will be on hand at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday to award the U.S. Open trophy, in what could be a symbolic handoff.
Laver is the last man to complete the Grand Slam, but even if Novak Djokovic pulls off the feat against Daniil Medvedev, he’ll still have one over the Serbian champion — Laver won all four majors in a calendar year not just once, but twice: in 1969 as a professional and in 1962 as an amateur.
Others in the ultraexclusive club are Don Budge (1938), Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf, who went a step further and also won the Olympics in 1988 to introduce what’s called the Golden Slam.
Sunday’s championship is a rematch of this year’s Australian Open final in which Novak Djokovic defeated Daniil Medvedev in a tidy, three-set match. But with a Grand Slam on the line and Medvedev’s recent hot streak to bolster his confidence, Sunday could be a different story.
Medvedev enters the U.S. Open final having won 14 of his last 15 matches and has a fairly solid history against the Serbian champion — or, about as solid as one can have against Djokovic if your name isn’t Nadal or Federer — to lean on. The Russian has never beaten Djokovic in a best-of-five set match but he has bested him three times in best-of-three set bouts. And Medvedev is never better than when he’s on hard court.
Medvedev will be playing in his third major final and should rely on his deep arsenal of shots to get Djokovic moving around the court and overthinking his game. Djokovic is the best defender in men’s tennis, with the best return, and he will need it against one of the more diabolical players on tour.
Djokovic, of course, has his own strong history to rely on should the match go the distance: He is an astonishing 36-10 in fifth sets in his career.
It’s no surprise that top-seeded Novak Djokovic and second-seeded Daniil Medvedev are the last men standing in New York. Medvedev, a lanky 25-year-old Russian, has rocketed up the rankings since his incredible run in the summer of 2019 that culminated in a thriller of a five-set U.S. Open final against Rafael Nadal, and sits squarely in the group of young contenders who appear poised to lead men’s tennis whenever Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic finally relinquish their hold on the game.
The No. 2 player in the world dropped just one set during his two weeks at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, against Dutchman Botic van de Zandschulp in the quarterfinals. Otherwise, Medvedev sailed through his matches and took down two seeded players along the way: No. 12 Felix Auger-Aliassime in a straightforward semifinal win and No. 24 Dan Evans in the fourth round.
Djokovic has perhaps had an ever-so slightly more challenging draw in that he had to face fourth-seeded Alexzander Zverev in the semifinals, last year’s U.S. Open finalist and the man who defeated him at the Olympics this summer in Tokyo.
He also played a rematch of this year’s Wimbledon final in the quarterfinals, beating No. 6 seed Matteo Berrettini once again, and toppled American upstart Jenson Brooksby in the fourth round with the crowd staunchly against him. One thing to note about Djokovic’s run? Don’t be surprised if he drops the first set before rebounding Sunday — he’s done it in every one of his matches at the U.S. Open from the third round on.