Is Novak Djokovic beatable in Grand Slam finals when he is fully fit and confident?
Yes and No.
At the US Open, he has played eight finals – the most at any Major. But before Sunday, he had only two titles to show for it, a skewed statistic.
In 2015, he beat Roger Federer 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in one of his best performances. He was clutch and compact against the player who had beaten him weeks before at Cincinnati. Federer had 23 break points, but Djokovic saved 19 of them.
In 2016, he went down to Stan Wawrinka 6-7(1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 as he was overpowered by the shot-making, brute force. Wawrinka hit through him, not giving him a chance to regroup.
But in 2018 – after skipping the tournament in 2017 – he was up against Juan Martin del Potro who was caught somewhere in between Federer 2015 to Wawrinka 2016. And the way he dismantled the big-serving Argentine to win his third US Open was a throwback to the early part of this decade, when he was the impenetrable wall, who became the best returner in tennis.
The 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-3 win on the unusually slow court under the roof seemed more business-like than electrifying. But even the straight-sets win had its moments, moments of vintage Djokovic: an on-the-line winner, an overhead smash, a passing shot, a backhand cracker.
If he were to stand in the arena and ask the largely partisan crowd if they were not entertained a la Gladiator, there could only be one answer – Yes. The entertainment even had an Oscar-winning face, Meryl Steep looking completely gobsmacked by the quality of tennis in the championship-defining game.
The Game that was the Match
This viral reaction was a response to the eighth game of the second set; a 20-minute, 22-point odyssey which became a microcosm of the match. In a final that should have been charactertised by long, lung-busting rallies, it was this game that showed who the superior athlete was.
The 31-year-old Serb was serving while down 4-3, after being broken for the first time. Djokovic had already engaged with the crowd who were raucously cheering the Argentine. The atmosphere had finally got to him as he dropped three consecutive games after not facing a single break point in the first set.
This was the make-or-break moment, the exact same juncture when del Potro had roared to life to beat Roger Federer in the US Open final nine years ago. And there could well be an encore as Djokovic had a momentary lapse in concentration while faced with the dual attack from the crowd and del Potro’s groundstrokes.
The game went to deuce eight times, del Potro had a break chance three times, he almost made it as Djokovic committed his first double fault of the match. But the Serb activated his beast mode, the one that can annihilate anything and anyone in his path. He was aggressive from the middle of the court, rushed to the net, punched from the baseline and put the ball back in play, no matter what.
The “Tower of Tandil” threw it all down, every last weapon he could summon, but Djokovic made sure he fortified his side of the net, a zone that was already an unbreachable wall. He held serve and closed out the 95-minute long set in the Tiebreak.
On his part, del Potro was let down by his trusty forehand in the big moment and he had no Plan B. He employed his serve and groundstrokes with all the force he could muster, but without a game plan, throwing anything at Djokovic at full speed is as good as a boomerang.
The third seed mounted a last-gasp offense in the third set, which even got a racquet clap from Djokovic. But then came another gruelling rally which showed just how tough an athlete, how determined a competitor, and how devastating a returner Novak Djokovic is.
Del Potro just put his hands on his knees in response, there wasn’t much he could do. He got a break back in the next game, only to surrender serve and go down 5-3 in the third. There was no reaction from Djokovic as he got the decisive break, no roar like the first two sets. He knew he had reached the finish line and when he crossed it, he fell flat on the ground and was swept away by the moment as he first hugged his opponent and then his team.
Rebuilding the wall brick-by-brick
It has taken Djokovic and his fired-and-rehired team a great deal of time and effort to repair his physical and mental game in the last two years. The wall had to be rebuilt brick by brick, but he restored it to its former glory with his trademark brand of offense-defence tennis.
Earlier this year, the American hard-court swing saw him hit rock bottom as he came back from an elbow surgery, losing to 109-ranked Taro Daniel and world No 57 Benoit Paire in the first round of Indian Wells and Miami.
After the clay court season in 2016, he held all four Grand Slams. After the clay court season of 2018, he was unsure if he wanted to play on grass. But in the transition from clay to grass, something changed in Djokovic at a fundamental level. The classic against Marco Cecchinato at the French Open this year was the final straw, but in this case it made the camel stand up.
Since then, he has completed the Wimbledon-US Open double for the third time and become the only man in history to win all nine ATP Masters titles.
This change was evident when he didn’t spiral at the contrary crowd, even as he tried to rally them. It was evident when he walked up and hugged del Potro before the trophy presentation. And this change was evident at the post-match talk where he said he owed his game to Federer and Nadal.
“Maybe 10 years ago I would say I’m not so happy to be part of this era with Nadal and Federer. Today I really am. I feel like these guys, rivalries with these guys, matches with Federer and Nadal, have made me the player I am, have shaped me into the player I am today.”
The player he is today is third on the list of all time Grand Slam winners, the highest on the list of prize money and the one who ended the Fedal duopoly to become the third contender for Greatest Of All Times in one generation.