Novak Djokovic was one game away from losing what he had called “arguably the most important match of his career”.
He had got his first break of the US Open final in the previous game, and was still in the game, technically. But he could probably barely see the ball because he was playing through tears.
At the changeover minutes before, he was bawling into his towel. He had just survived a championship point, held serve and the normally partisan crowd was backing him vociferously. But he was sobbing even as he stepped up to receive serve. Eyes red, trying hard to keep it together, it was hard to watch. That’s not a sight often seen on a tennis court, certainly not with Djokovic.
Cut to a few hours back, the world No 1 was on the verge of a historic Calendar Slam and record-breaking 21st Major with crowd support like never before. But now he had been thoroughly outplayed by the 25-year-old Danill Medvedev and was staring at a straight-set loss. At the first Slam of the year, he had crushed the Russian in straight sets. At the final Slam, he was at the receiving end of a heartbreak.
A man with 20 Grand Slam titles from 31 finals had seemingly blanked out in what he knew was a big occasion. Sport can be brutal. Even the best can be affected by pressure. No one is invincible.
But does this one match define Djokovic’s 2021 season?
The 34-year-old won the first three Slams of the year in contrastingly emphatic styles – a straight-sets win over Medvedev at Australian Open, fighting back from two sets down against Stefanos Tsitsipas at French Open and cruising to a record-equalling 20 at Wimbledon.
He won 27 straight Grand Slam matches, beating the best of players in best of five. He failed to win the two big matches he was desperate to, falling short of an Olympic medal and a record-breaking 21st Major.
For any other player, a straight-sets loss in their 31st Slam final to a first-time champion at the age of 34 wouldn’t bode well. But Djokovic has built such a remarkably unprecedented season, and indeed career, that coming to any sort of conclusion based on one match feels a tad unfair. He has achieved so much in the last few years that even an important loss like the US Open final doesn’t feel as earth-shattering as it would seem on paper.
Djokovic’s biggest 2021 feat, in the context of modern men’s tennis, is becoming the first man Open era to win each of the four Majors twice. Australian Open trophies he has nine, Wimbledon is his backyard now as grass court pedigree is fast disappearing. But French Open has always been a frontier he couldn’t get past more than once, even when he beat the king of clay.
But he did that in 2021 and is some style, conquering Rafael Nadal, albeit a not completely fit one, at Roland Garros for a second time and coming back from two sets down twice including the final. He then completed the Channel Slam by defending his title with ease and opening the conversation for a Calendar Slam and even a Golden Slam, a la Steffi Graf.
Neither worked out, losing to Alexander Zverev in Tokyo and losing his head in the bronze medal match before the capitulation in New York. Yet, the fact that Djokovic came within three sets of completing something that hasn’t been since 1969 in men’s tennis is an accomplishment worth celebrating.
Admittedly, there is another angle to view Djokovic’s winning run in 2021.
While he has won three Grand Slams, he has done so at a time where he was not playing his absolute best. Simply put, he was not as outright dominant as we know he can be. Ideally, as long as he was getting the wins, the way doesn’t matter. But when the player is someone as complete as Djokovic, it can show a strange dissonance.
A striking statistic shared on Twitter showed that he has lost 22 sets at Majors, more sets than in seasons that he won just one. The three Slams have indeed been hard-fought. He cut down heavily on the ATP Tour schedule to stay fresh for Slams and the Olympics.
In fact, he has had a fairly average season when it comes to best-of-three matches on ATP Tour, except for a final loss at Rome Masters and title at the low-profile Belgrade Open. But no one could match him when it came to best-of-five, which is a different ball game.
Against the top players like the Big Three at Majors, an opponent has to earn the right to win every point for three sets. They won’t give you an easy win and that’s how Djokovic gritted out several Slam matches this year.
Another way of looking at this is that the 34-year-old just knows how to win even when not playing at his optimum level and then finding his peak form when it mattered.
The epic semi-final against Nadal and the even more epic final at French Open. The two matches against an enterprising Zverev at Australian and US Open. The tightly-fought straight-sets win against Denis Shapovalov a Wimbledon that would have gone five against any other player. The four straight matches at US Open where he dropped the first set, against Kei Nishikori, Jenson Brooksby, Matteo Berrettini and Zverev.
Every time the going got tough at a Major, the world No 1 found a way to win.
Till he couldn’t... in the US Open final. Till Medvedev, playing like a virtual mirror image of Djokovic’s all-court style, raised his game to a level where even the best returner in the game was unable to get into his serve. Till he smashed a racquet in frustration. Till the weight of the expectations and pressure got too much, to the point of where one of the mentally toughest players was moved to tears.
The tone in Djokovic’s statements before and after the final is a lesson in what it takes to win a Grand Slam even when you are an overwhelming favourite, even when you have played 30 finals and won 20 Majors before.
“I’m going to treat this match as it’s my last one because it’s arguably the most important one of my career.”
“Why should I be happy? The job is not done”
“I like to play best-of-five, especially against the younger guys. I think the experience of being on the big stage so many times does help. Physically I feel as fit as anybody out there. So I can go the distance.
“Relief. I was glad it was over”
“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. It was a lot to handle.”
“I was just glad that finally, the run is over. At the same time I felt sadness, disappointment, and also gratitude for the crowd and for that special moment that they created for me on the court.”
As tough as it is right now for Djokovic, he has the prism of perspective and a season beyond compare. He knows that the emotional battle is over and it’s time to reset – something that the Serb does like no other tennis player. He will go back, recalibrate and in all likelihood, come back stronger. Like he did after being defaulted at US Open and crushed at Roland Garros last year. Like he did after facing two Championship Points at Wimbledon the year before.
Major No 21, which will put him beyond the reach of Federer and Nadal, will come sooner rather than later; at 34 he is fit and hungry to win another one at least. But for now, the quest of a Calendar Slam and the 21st title should not define what has been a phenomenal 2021 for Novak Djokovic.