The overwhelming emotion as Novak Djokovic simply ran out of gas in the U.S. Open Men’s final against Danil Medvedev was how fast it all left.
An hour in, Medvedev already had a set, a break, and was mostly on the way to a second set. Which wouldn’t usually ring alarm bells for Djokovic, It was only just three months ago or so that we watched him come back from two sets down in the French Open final against Stefanos Tsitsipas. But this one felt different. The final in Paris was just a case of one player playing at a level he wouldn’t be able to maintain and Djokovic just had to wait. Medvedev was playing at or near that level, too, but Djokovic, attempting to join Rod Laver as the only men to win the Grand Slam and pass Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for most Slams ever, didn’t look like he was lying in wait. He looked like he just wanted it to be over.
The facts on the ground are that Medvedev put on a glorious serving performance, not getting broken until he had one of those belches where you end up with vomit in your mouth the first time he served for the championship in the third set. He wouldn’t miss in his next chance. Against the greatest returner of all-time, Medvedev was barely threatened. Djokovic never seemed to get a handle on the Russian’s serve, and Medvedev just couldn’t miss. Every serve was in one of the corners. He won 81 percent of his first-serve points. He had 16 aces.
Secondly, Medvedev was able to out-Djokovic Djokovic, which of course I had said couldn’t really be done. When he wasn’t getting easy points on his serve, he was happy to grind it out with Djoker, simply batting groundstrokes down the middle of the court, giving Djokovic no angle or opening, waiting for an opportunity. Sensing that Djokovic didn’t have the usual pep in his legs, he just waited for a mistake. He usually got them.
And with Medvedev standing somewhere around the 7 train behind the baseline for a lot of points, especially on Djokovic’s serve, Djokovic was forced to come to the net more often than he’d like. Djokovic is excellent at net, but it’s never Plan A. Medvedev kept lacing shots at his shoelaces when he did get there, and if it wasn’t for some remarkable volleys showing off a sculptor’s touch, Djokovic may have been blown out in the first set and a half instead of just barely hanging on. Eventually though, you can’t keep coming up with those rabbits-out-of-a-hat, and Djokovic didn’t. It was all perfectly executed by Medvedev, a worthy major champion now, ousting Djokovic in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
But the facts on the ground aren’t always the whole story. Djokovic just looked tapped. Maybe it was all the time on court, as he had come from behind in his last four matches, and played five sets on Friday night. It could be as simple as his usual unheard of fitness finally gave out. The U.S. Open comes at the end of the season, which this year included a jaunt to the Olympics, and everyone is tired.
And only Djokovic was carrying the weight of accomplishing something truly historic, truly memorable. He was aware of just how much it was to carry. Even the New York crowd, which usually cheers for him to be tested in matches, if not to lose them, was behind him from the first ball. They wanted to witness something none of them had ever seen. But they couldn’t lift him over the fence, nor could they rattle Medvedev enough.
“I was glad it was over because the buildup for this tournament and everything that mentally, emotionally I had to deal with throughout the tournament in the last couple of weeks was just a lot,” Djokovic said after the loss. “It was a lot to handle.”
It’s tempting, and even satisfying to dance on Djokovic’s loss and his admitted succumbing to pressure (he broke down after the match) after his coarse comments on Naomi Osaka, which he backtracked from soon after a bit. It’s also a look when Djokovic referenced embracing the pressure, but we’ve seen him smash rackets at the Olympics and yesterday when things went pear-shaped. Certainly, he doesn’t get the same labels as some others.
How it’s reported and described isn’t Djokovic’s problem though. And no one has faced the pressure he has, at least not on the men’s side, in five decades. And it’s even more now, with the way the sport is covered and the 24-hour cycle. We know playing for his country is gargantuanly important to Djokovic, and unlike the Grand Slams, he’s not guaranteed another whack at getting a medal next year. He’ll be 37 when the next one rolls around.
And this might have been his only shot at this sport-defining accomplishment. It’s not hard to see where it became too much, especially as well as Medvedev was playing.
It’s funny how this will be looked at. 27-1 in majors with three triumphs is simply one of the greatest seasons in history. No one has been at Djokovic’s level in the history of the sport. One match is 3 percent of his total in majors this year. Whether he won the last one or not, it’s maybe the greatest season of all time. It’s marginal. But that’s not what the headline will be in the memory.