Novak Djokovic is, unfortunately for a Roger Federer loyalist like me, probably the greatest tennis player ever. Use almost any measurement you want — head-to-head matchups against the other stars of his era, stretches of sheer dominance on tour, SORPR (a fake sabermetric stat I made up) and the Serbian comes out on top. But had Djokovic won the U.S. Open on Sunday, thus completing the first calendar Grand Slam since Rod Laver did it in 1969 and vaulting him one past both Federer and Rafael Nadal with 21 majors — he would have rendered the conversation — that eternal “conversation” happening among tennis fans — a truly boring one.
Instead, the idiosyncratic Russian gamer Daniil Medvedev crushed Djokovic with a jaw-dropping display of power and versatility. In doing so, he supplied Federer and Nadal fans a mantra to repeat until at least the 2022 Australian Open: So you’re telling me there’s a chance my guy is still the best.
I was fortunate enough to witness this drubbing up close — if the upper tiers of cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium can be called close — and it was clear from the outset that Djokovic wasn’t at the pinnacle of his powers. He failed to dictate the pace of long rallies, and looked lost on most of Medvedev’s service games (the Russian was serving out of his mind, but Djoker is the greatest returner of all time, so this was an unusual sight). Most noticeably, the usually machinelike Djokovic was making a lot of unforced errors.
Coming off a disappointing Olympics, Djoker had often looked shaky at the beginning of matches these last two weeks, dropping first sets to Kei Nishikori, Matteo Berrettini, Jenson Brooksby, and Alexander Zverev (who pushed him to five sets) before turning on the afterburners. It’s impossible to say whether this was due to the physical strain of an endless season, the psychic weight of chasing the calendar Slam, karmic punishment for being a quasi anti-vaxxer, or some mixture thereof. In any case, he hadn’t faced as unforgiving an opponent as Medvedev — one who would capitalize fully on a B-minus performance.
Still, it seemed inevitable that the most mentally tough player I’ve ever seen would mount a comeback, or that Medvedev, like so many other would-be giant-slayers in years past, would crumble on the doorstep of greatness. “He’s going to blow this,” the loquacious man one row behind me — who did not get the memo about remaining silent during points — said of the Russian.
The crowd certainly wanted him to. The most remarkable thing about the match, beyond the actual result, was that crowd. Since he ascended to the top of the game more than a decade ago, Djokovic has been the clear odd man out of the Big Three — the star almost nobody seemed to like much. His COVID nonsense notwithstanding, I believe Djokovic’s villainous reputation is largely undeserved. And on Sunday, it might have been shed, at least for a while. There was a considerable flag-waving Serb contingent in the house, but the majority of fans, wanting to witness something historic, were with him too: offering him lusty applause on every winner, chanting “Nole” to buoy his spirits after he destroyed a racket, and boorishly cheering at Medvedev’s mistakes. It was a role reversal from the 2015 Open final, when Djokovic endured even worse treatment as he dispatched Federer. On Sunday, he did not have to pretend the crowd was chanting his name: They actually were. The star-studded Ashe multitudes went from boisterous to febrile as Djokovic inched closer to defeat, trying to will him to a fourth set.
In the end, it was not enough; maybe Djokovic is so accustomed to silence and tempered applause that the unbridled show of support threw him for a loop. But he clearly enjoyed the treatment. In his post-match interview, he said that “even though I have not won the match, my heart is filled with joy and I am the happiest man alive because you guys made me feel very special on the court.”
My heart, too, was filled with joy. Djokovic will be the heavy favorite in Melbourne this January, and Nadal, if he’s healthy, could very easily take the French Open for a 14th time. My man Roger, on the other hand, is now on the wrong side of 40, and hobbled with injuries. But for at least a few more months, I can make the case that he, not his rivals, is the best to ever pick up a racket. Why does this matter? I don’t know, but it does. Thank you, Daniil.