By Arnie Leshin
It was something that Novak Djokovic is not accustomed to.
He was in pursuit of something special like he usually is. He stepped into Arthur Ashe Stadium Sunday at the United States Tennis Center with a chance to become the first to win a calendar year sweep of the four Grand Slams since the elite Rod Laver accomplished this back in 1969.
The 34-year-old top-ranked Djokdovic had already won the Australian Open on the hard courts, the French Open on clay, and Wimbledon on grass, and now
faced 2nd-ranked, 25-year-old Danill Medvedev of Russia for the men’s Open championship and another place in history.
The Serbian was soaring-hot here at the United States Open in Flushing Meadow. He had rolled over each opponent. He appeared to be at the top of his game with his usual mix of shot making.
Except from start to finish, it just wasn’t his time, the moment belonged to the 6-foot-6 Medvedev, who came away with his first major win and carried off this Open championship trophy with a remarkable straight-set triumph over Djokovic, all at 6-4sets in shortly less then two hours, something that Djokovic usually does.
After Medvedev served an ace for the championship point, he toppled to the ground, rolled to his side and let his tongue hang out and it probably was a first for that because it came in his biggest win. He had his wife in the stands and probably wasn’t the peoples choice of the 25,187 in the stands.
Yes, Djokovic was the known player, he was trying to do something that other elite players like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer haven’t done. But it didn’t take long for Medvedev to gain confidence, to cover the courts with a challenge that Djokovic couldn’t handle. He had a forehand that hugged both lines, a commanding backhand that even had the crowd in awe, and a serve that was blazing.
After the first set, Medvedev waved to his wife and coaches. Djokovic, in turn, sat in his chair and draped a towel over his face. He was down now, but usually never out, except this wasn’t a sign that he would do it this time.
He was simply being outplayed by someone using a similar style to his own. Medvedev was taking on a player who had won 27 Grand Slams on all courts, and could not be deterred, could not be beaten.
Until now, for now, his run was over, and he said he felt sadness and disappointment, and added he had great gratitude for the crowd and for that special moment that they’ve created for him on the court.
Until this he had been sublime at the sport’s four most important tournament, enduring the burdens of expectations and pressure over the past seven months, and in New York the past fortnight.
Said Medvedev as he was interviewed before the closing award ceremony: “I do feel sorry for Novak because I cannot imagine how he feels. Me, I was 0-2 in major finals, and knowing that I managed to stop him, it definitely makes it sweeter and brings me confidence for what is to come.”
Medvedev won 20 of his first 23 service points, establishing a pattern. He finished with 16 aces and 38 winners in all, 11 more than Djokovic. He managed to hit more balls down the middle of the court rather than trying to find angles that would allow Djokovic to pick up balls on his own.
“He’s so good,” he said in regard to Djokovic, “that every match is different. He changes his tactics, he changes his approach.”
At the very end, nerves, distracting noise from spectators and cramps that started in his legs and got to him as Medvedev went about securing this huge success. He served for the match at 5-2 and double-faulted twice in a row. On his next chance, though, a 129 mph service winner finally finished the job.
“What I did when I toppled over to the court with my tongue hanging out,” he said afterwards, “was inspired by a goal celebration from a soccer video game. I guess I was saving it.”
Medvedev chased down everything and responded with seemingly effortless ground strokes — much the way Djokovic wears down foes — and delivered pinpoint serves.
“He was amazing,” Djokovic said. “Just congratulate him, full credit from his mentality, his approach, his game, everything. He absolutely was the better player and deserved to win, no doubt about it.”
During the trophy presentation, Medvedev addressed Djokovic, offering praise and telling him “That what you accomplished this year and throughout your career, well I never said this to anybody, but I’ll say it right now, for me, you are the greatest tennis player in history.”
Television commentators said that Federer, Nadal or Djokovic deserve to be considered the best of the bunch and the “GOAT” (“Greatest of all Time”).
The great Laver was in the stands, the last women to accomplish this was Steffi Graf in 1988, while lefty Laver was also the last man to complete a true Grand Slam by going 4-for-4 at the majors in a single season, that being 1962 and 1969.
Instead, Djokovic joins Jack Crawford in 1933 and Lew Hoad in 1956 as men who won a year’s first trio of Grand Slam tournaments and made it all the way to the U.S. Open final before losing.
This finish came down the ramp from Citi Field, where the New York Mets were defeating the New York Yankees, 7-6, and around the time both events were emptying. A busy time from both ends of the elevated trains, with capacity crowds in both venues.
New York, New York, where things get so big they say it twice.