Novak Djokovic’s summer began with the type of setback that has been rare in his career. He was not merely outplayed by Carlos Alcaraz in the Wimbledon final, he was also outfought and outlasted. At the age of 36, after dominating for so much of the past 12 years, a new threat had emerged.
But Djokovic’s greatness has been defined by his ability to rise from difficulty stronger than before. On Sunday evening in the final of the US Open, his response was predictable and decisive as he held on through countless exhausting rallies to defeat Daniil Medvedev 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 and win a men’s record-extending 24th grand slam title.
“I never imagined that I would be here standing with you talking about 24 slams. I never thought that would be the reality,” said Djokovic after the match. “But the last couple of years, I felt I have a chance, I have a shot for history, and why not grab it if it’s presented?”
By winning his first-round match at this tournament, Djokovic ensured that he will regain his place as world No 1 and extend his all-time record to 390 weeks at the top of the ATP rankings. He will do so with a bullet. Djokovic is the oldest US Open champion in the Open era, and he has now won the tournament four times. He is also the first man to have won three grand slam titles in a season on four separate occasions.
Djokovic has responded to his five-set loss in the Wimbledon final by winning 12 consecutive matches. Although he now has a legitimate rival in Alcaraz, he finishes the grand slam year as the best player in the world by a considerable distance. Despite his sparse schedule, Djokovic leads Alcaraz handsomely in the ATP race.
While a rematch with the Spaniard in the final seemed the likely outcome for much of this tournament, in some ways revenge against Medvedev was even sweeter. In 2021, the last time Djokovic competed in New York, he came to the US Open needing the title to capture a calendar grand slam. Instead, he was dismantled in straight sets by Medvedev in the final. Djokovic’s refusal to take a Covid vaccine meant that he was barred from traveling to the US for last year’s edition.
As for Medvedev, he had produced one of the best performances of his career in the semi-final to topple Alcaraz, the world No 1 and defending US Open champion. The question on Sunday was whether the Russian could bring himself up to that level again against Djokovic.
The answer came swiftly. While Medvedev started off stone cold, errors flowing from his racket in the opening game, Djokovic began the match determined to take the ball early and unload his forehand. He broke Medvedev’s serve and then resisted the predictably long, attritional exchanges as he rolled through his service games to take the set.
Although Medvedev continued to struggle through his service games at the beginning of the second set – his first serve bailed him out – at 3-3 on the Russian’s serve, the complexion of the match shifted. As the long rallies began to settle in the players’ legs, Djokovic struggled. He dramatically stumbled out of missed backhands and even fell to the floor after one bruising rally and struggled to catch his breath between points.
After edging out that service game, Medvedev began to put relentless pressure on Djokovic’s serve, but each time they reached a decisive point, Djokovic moved forward and closed off the net. Serving at 3-4, Djokovic saved a break point with a wonderful half-volley winner, before closing out the game with two more excellent volleys. Medvedev’s biggest opportunity came at 6-5 on Djokovic’s serve. As the Serb swept forward again, the court was wide open for a backhand down the line. Instead, he sent the ball crosscourt and straight to Djokovic, who dispatched his volley with ease.
As they started the tiebreak, Medvedev clearly had the upper hand and he ended an astonishing 23-stroke rally with a brilliant drop shot to lead 5-4. But Djokovic is inevitable. He erased Medvedev’s lead with brilliant serving before Medvedev netted a routine backhand on set point. Somehow, impossibly, Djokovic finished the marathon 104-minute set with a two-set lead. He then thoroughly outplayed Medvedev throughout the final set.
As Djokovic celebrated his victory, he paid tribute to Kobe Bryant by wearing a “Mamba Forever” shirt bearing the NBA legend’s famous No 24. Bryant, who died in 2020, was a good friend of Djokovic.
“Kobe was a close friend, 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. “He was one of the people that I relied on the most.”
Djokovic’s 24th major served as a reminder of the dimensions he has methodically added to his game to maintain his longevity. Djokovic has not aged much visually and he is still startlingly quick around the court. But after so much mileage in his legs, he is no longer as tolerant of grinding through endless rallies. No matter, he was adaptable and intelligent as he won so many decisive points at the net.
“When we first played I was probably 500 in the world,” said Medvedev after the match, paying tribute to his opponent. “And he was super kind to me. Nothing special, but he treated me like a normal person. And he still does. Nothing changed: 24, 30, 12 grand slams? Nothing changes. And I think that’s something great about a person you can say.”
Fifteen years on from his first grand slam title at the 2008 Australian Open, and 12 since his dominance truly began, Djokovic continues to rack up grand slam titles. Earlier this week, he noted that he would only stop once he begins to get his “ass kicked by young guys” regularly. That doesn’t look like happening just yet. Three grand slam titles in four attempts this year still seems like a pretty good record.