At 36, Djokovic keeps winning the big ones
The critical points of this Grand Slam final belonged, as so often, to Novak Djokovic, but at least Daniil Medvedev had the line of the night.
“First of all, I want to ask Novak, what are you still doing here?” said Medvedev as the US Open trophy ceremony got underway after Djokovic’s 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory.
Medvedev was eager to lighten the mood after his painful defeat, full of missed opportunities and tactical blunders, but it was still a reasonable question.
Djokovic is 36 now with two young children, more than $175 million in prize money and hundreds of millions more in sponsorship. He has been essentially a full-time tennis pro for 25 years considering that he left his home and family in Belgrade at age 12 to board at Niki Pilic’s Tennis Academy in Munich, Germany.
He has been No. 1 for a record 389 weeks and will resume the count this week as he reclaims the top spot. He has won all the Grand Slam tournaments at least three times and won all the Masters 1000 tournaments at least twice.
One of his longtime arch-rivals, Roger Federer, is a retiree. Another, Rafael Nadal, has not played since January because of injury and may not play again. Another, Andy Murray, is a model of persistence and resilience yet is nothing more than an early-round factor at the majors after hip surgeries.
But Djokovic, still elastic and somehow still fantastic, runs and rumbles on, adapting to new challenges and opposition and much more often than not, finding a way to prevail. His 24 Grand Slam singles titles are a men’s record, and he is now equal with Margaret Court, who holds the women’s record, and like Djokovic, won her 24th at the US Open.
“Occasionally I am asking myself why do I need this still at this stage after all I’ve done?” Djokovic said. “How long do I want to keep going? I do have these questions in my head of course but knowing that I play at such a high level still, and I win the biggest tournaments in the sport, I don’t want to leave this sport if I’m still at the top and if I’m still playing the way I’m playing.”
He is the oldest man to win the US Open since it became open to professionals in 1968 (it was formerly known as the US Championships). He was nearly a decade older than any other man in the quarterfinals of this US Open, which was also the case at the other three majors this year.
And yet, despite the generation gap, he came within one match of the true Grand Slam in 2023: within one set in fact. If he had won the fifth against 20-year-old Carlos Alcaraz at the All England Club in July, Djokovic would have taken the Wimbledon title, too. Instead, he had to settle for the Australian Open, French Open and US Open.
“There is a little regret I didn’t win that Wimbledon final, but look, in the end of the day I have so much more to be happy and content with than actually to regret something,” he said.
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As in Paris this year, when Djokovic donned a jacket with No. 23 shortly after victory, he arrived well-prepared for No. 24 on Sunday. Not long after securing match point, he tearfully embraced his 6-year-old daughter Tara courtside and then celebrated with the occupants of his player box, including everyone from his wife Jelena to his coach Goran Ivanisevic to American actor Matthew McConaughey. Djokovic then donned a T-shirt of his own design that read “Mamba Forever”. It was a tribute to his friend Kobe Bryant, the former NBA superstar who died with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles in January 2020. The T-shirt had a picture of Djokovic with Bryant on the front and the number “24” on the back.
“We chatted a lot about the winner's mentality when I was struggling with injury and trying to make my comeback, work my way back to the top of the game," Djokovic said of Bryant. "He was one of the people that I relied on the most. He was always there for any kind of counsel, advice, any kind of support in the most friendly way. So of course what happened a few years ago with him and his daughter passing hurt me deeply, and I thought 24 is the jersey he wore when he became a legend of the Lakers and world basketball, so I thought it could be a nice, symbolic thing to acknowledge him for all the things he's done."
Justin Gimelstob, a former player and ATP Board member, facilitated Djokovic’s introduction to Bryant in 2013 during Djokovic’s visit to Los Angeles when he also met with his boyhood tennis idol Pete Sampras.
“Novak is a searcher, always was, always wanted to connect with people that could offer growth,” Gimelstob said.
Djokovic has long sought fresh influences but ultimately follows his own path, sometimes at considerable cost. His decision to remain unvaccinated for the coronavirus led to his deportation from Australia just ahead of the Australian Open in 2022 and left him unable to enter the United States for last year’s US Open.
But he has returned to both countries in 2023 after changes in government policy and gone undefeated. He won the title in Adelaide in January before winning his 10th Australian Open and won the title in Cincinnati last month in a down-to-the-wire duel with Alcaraz before winning his 4th US Open.
“Welcome back to New York, we really missed you,” said Brian Hainline, chairman of the board and president of the United States Tennis Association, at the awards ceremony.
Djokovic kept his own counsel, but it was certainly a full-circle moment, yet another reminder of Djokovic’s staying power. So was the presence of American star Andy Roddick, the 2003 US Open champion, who awarded Djokovic his trophy on Sunday. In 2008, Roddick and Djokovic got into a locker-room argument at the US Open, nearly coming to blows after Roddick made light in a news conference of Djokovic’s propensity to seek medical treatment during matches, coming up with a fictional list of his ailments including “bird flu, anthrax and SARS”.
“There's just a lot,” Roddick said to reporters at the time. “You know, he's either quick to call the trainer or he's the most courageous guy of all time. I think it's up for you guys to decide."
Roddick, 41, retired in 2012 at age 30 and has since become a Tennis Channel analyst, giving Djokovic plenty of kudos as he has played on (and on), racking up record after record.
There are, of course, no guarantees Djokovic would have won in New York this year if he had won Wimbledon. The prospect of completing the Grand Slam by winning all four majors in the same calendar year creates unique pressure, which proved too much for Djokovic the last time he faced Medvedev in the US Open final.
That was in 2021, and Medvedev snuffed out Djokovic’s Grand Slam quest in straight sets. But Djokovic came out of the blocks much more convincingly in this rematch, breaking Medvedev’s serve in only the second game, and digging into the inevitably extended rallies with gusto.
“I really did my best in the last 48 hours not to allow the importance of the moment and what’s on the line to get to my head,” Djokovic said. “Because two years ago, that’s what happened, and I underperformed, and I wasn’t able to be at my best, and I was outplayed. So I learned my lesson.”
Even after the lesson, his energy flagged in the marathon second set, which lasted one hour and 44 minutes, longer than some entire matches at the Open. Hardly for the first time in his career, Djokovic looked close to dead on his feet, falling to the court after a couple of lengthy rallies, staggering and lunging weakly for wide balls, and flailing and dropping his racket after striking a backhand as if he had been hit by a flying object.
What part is physical and what part is mental can be hard to discern, but however down he appears, he is so very rarely out. And unlike Medvedev, he continued to win the points that mattered most.
On Medvedev’s first break point of the match with Djokovic serving at 3-4 in the second set, he boldly rushed forward and hit an angled, phenomenally deft forehand half volley winner. Down a set point while serving at 5-6, Djokovic served-and-volleyed again and though Medvedev appeared to have plenty of time and space to go down the line with his backhand passing shot, he chose to go back at Djokovic down the middle.
A grateful Djokovic knocked away the backhand volley winner, grinning at his good fortune as he walked back to the baseline.
There were no smiles from Medvedev. For a quick-witted competitor who loves the immediacy of video games, he struggled to make the right snap decisions on Sunday and also failed to hold a 3-1 or 5-4 lead in the tiebreaker as Djokovic swept the final three points.
Medvedev’s best chance to turn this final into a thriller and true battle of attrition was gone. After he defeated Alcaraz in often-dazzling fashion in the semifinals, the inspiration and precision were too often missing in the final.
His passing shots and returns from deep behind the baseline frequently hurt Alcaraz as the Spaniard pushed forward or served-and-volleyed. But on Sunday, Medvedev kept playing into Djokovic’s hands, particularly in the deuce court where Djokovic converted again and again by following wide, sliced serves into net.
And yet Medvedev did not dramatically alter his deep return positions, adopting a definition-of-insanity approach and never getting different results.
For the match, Djokovic won 37 of 44 points when he came to the net and converted 20 of his 22 serve-and-volley points. Those are sky-high conversion rates: a tribute to Djokovic’s tactical nous and ever-improving feel in the forecourt but also a reflection of Medvedev’s off night.
Sustained excellence is required to defeat Djokovic; audacity, too. Alcaraz managed it at Wimbledon with his all-court weaponry and genuine love of the net. Medvedev, usually camped out behind the baseline, could not find the right balance, although he did manage to win a slim majority of the longer rallies when both men were in human-backboard mode.
But Djokovic was the far better player when he shortened the points, and Medvedev is now 1-4 in Grand Slam finals while Djokovic is 24-12 with no finish line in clear view.
Ivanisevic said with a straight face on Sunday night that Djokovic is planning on playing until the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028. He would then be 41, the same age that Federer was when he retired last year and almost the same age that Serena Williams was when she stepped away at age 40 after last year’s US Open.
Don’t think Djokovic has not taken note. He is a model ager and lifelong learner, ever restless but perhaps happiest as he seeks a new way forward.
“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned probably mentally through my career is even if you find a formula that works, it’s not a guarantee and most likely it’s not going to work the next year,” he said. “You need to reinvent yourself, because everyone else does, and as a 36-year-old competing with 20-year-olds I probably need to do it more than I’ve ever done it.”
Consider that fair warning to Alcaraz and fellow 20-year-olds Holger Rune and Ben Shelton.
The old guard is die-hard.
PS: That’s a wrap on the 2023 US Open. Thanks to all of you for following along and for subscribing and supporting this project. I will be focusing heavily on my Nadal book in the weeks to come. I enjoyed getting the chance to interact with you all in the comments section and also enjoyed speaking with the ABC in Australia about the tournament. Give a listen.
Patrick Stack and I had a good, in-depth chat