By the time Novak Djokovic walked into the Arthur Ashe Stadium for the final of the US Open 2021, the stage was set. He was chasing history. The 21st Title. Career Grand Slam. A known opponent at the other end was waiting to create history as well. His first Grand Slam title.
Now, both Medvedev and Djokovic had one thing in common. The boos from the New York crowd. Go back to Medvedev’s 2019 journey. You will have a brief answer. Medvedev might be new to all of these, but Djokovic has been a permanent outsider, and he got constantly reminded of that every time he walked out to the court.
He wasn’t unloved but just not loved as much as Federer and Nadal. Whenever he won against them- mostly in a brutal way- his winning speech was more apologetic to the crowd rather than just thanking them for support.
There could be millions of reasons for that. Federer and Nadal show emotions in different ways. We don’t frequently see them break a racquet after losing a point. Even during the final, Djokovic had that moment. His legs didn’t show up for the night. He had emotional exposure, moments of vulnerability, well, multiple times. Shed of tears obviously said what he was going through at that moment.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Djokovic had won 28 Grand Slam matches in a row. His nerves of steel kept him going every single time he was low. In later matches, it sort of became the pattern.
The pattern was to lose the first and then take the break in the very first game of the opponent and roll from thereon. As Andy Roddick tweeted, he would first take his opponent’s legs but make them work for the first set and then brutally comes back to take their soul.
So, when Medvedev won the first set, it was the time most people settled in for the final. As expected, he stole four points and had multiple breakpoints during the first game of the second set. The only change was that he could convert neither of them. Medvedev came back from 0-40 to take that game. The pattern was broken. Soon Djokovic too. The trajectory of the match could’ve been different had Djokovic ran with a break. However, he didn’t Medvedev later did. It was him right from that moment. He might not have played flawless tennis but had made sure to hit aces 16 times and put the passing shot near Djokovic’s feet.
Error after error coupled with Medvedev’s plan worked better. The latter changed his speed from the baseline constantly. The most Djokovic could do in that match was volleying and of course, serving. In most of the cases, the latter didn’t help him too.
Still, the hopes were there. Even when he had lost the second set, the hopes of him making a comeback to win the next three sets kept the crowd going. He did that to Stefanos Tsitsipas only three months ago at Roland Garros but this time, his body wasn’t helping him out. In a way, he is more almost ten years older than his opponent and had spent more hours on the court already.
As Medvedev pulled a dead fish for his celebration, Djokovic had a lot to sink in. Career Slam. 21st Grand Slam. It was just too much to ask for. As the world number one sat down. He had tears. He wanted to let it all out. He was feeling everything but mostly relief. The pressure was taken off, at least for a while now.
Moments later, when Medvedev called him the Greatest player in history, the crowd backed him. Probably for the first time.
When he took the mic to speak, he had a standing ovation not only from his core supporters but from 25,000+ fans in the stadium. He had won 28 matches in a row this year, but none of those wins was as emotional as this win over the hearts of the New York fans.
Going by the stats, he is certainly the best player in the history of tennis at the moment and is likely to win more slams than anyone else, but that moment will stay special for years to come. Because for the first time, he was no longer standing in the shadows of the beloved Fedal but was standing right into the light.