NEW YORK —Novak Djokovic looked like he lost his legs.
The champ collapsed to the court in a heap of exhaustion during a marathon second set, breathing heavily right after losing a 31-shot rally to Daniil Medvedev. In the next game, Djokovic dropped a 28-shot rally and positioned his racket on the court like a cane to hold himself up.
The scene Sunday night left the impression that Djokovic, at 36 years old, was going to lose the battle of attrition against his younger opponent.
But then Djokovic found another gear. He tends to do that in big moments.
Not only did the Serbian recover to win that set in a tiebreaker – completing it in 104 minutes – he rode a second wind to finish off Medvedev, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3, and become the oldest man to even win the U.S. Open.
With his fourth U.S. Open championship – and first since 2018 – Djokovic has three of the four grand slam titles this year and shares the honor of most decorated tennis champion in history, man or woman.
Only Margaret Court won as many slams with 24. One more and Djokovic will be alone. He already owned the record for most slam titles for a male tennis player. Although playing like an immortal in his mid-30s, Djokovic seems to understand there’s an expiration date.
“Every Grand Slam final could be the last one,” he said. “So I think that I probably value these occasions and opportunities to win another slam as more than I have maybe 10 years ago, because 10 years ago I felt like, ‘Hey, I still have quite a few years ahead of me.’
“I don’t know how many I have ahead of me now, or I don’t know how many of the years where I play four slams in the whole season do I have in front of me.”
Sunday was straight sets on Ashe but a grueling affair, defined by long rallies and Djokovic’s championship composure.
Medvedev, 27, is a solid player and the U.S. Open champion two years ago. But he wasn’t up to the challenge. After getting overwhelmed in the first set, the Russian couldn’t capitalize on Djokovic’s fatigue and lost his spirit down the stretch while hampered by pain in his left shoulder. He committed 39 errors.
Medvedev’s finals appearance was a little surprise, and maybe a letdown. The expectation from the start of the tournament was another Djokovic-Carlos Alcaraz final, a rematch of the Wimbledon classic from July.
But Medvedev, seeded third, upset No. 2 Alcaraz on Friday. He couldn’t replicate that against the GOAT.
Djokovic might’ve won more slams but missed two tournaments last year – the Australian and U.S. Opens – because he refused a COVID-19 vaccination. In 2020, Djokovic was disqualified from the U.S. Open because he hit a ball into a lines judge.
So there were some unfortunate circumstances around his career, but Djokovoic has also benefited from exceptional health. At 36 years old, he’s only missed one grand slam tournament because of injury. It’s a contrast to rival Rafael Nadal, in particular, who is only one year older than Djokovic but has been plagued by pain and skipped 12 grand slams since 2006.