What I found so interesting when Novak Djokovic won his 24th major and 4th US Open title is that it was a complete reversal of the 2021 US Open final.
Daniil Medvedev, not Novak Djokovic, was the champion there, winning in a highly unforeseen and frankly bizarre scoreline of 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. What on earth happened?
After winning all three previous majors that year, Djokovic was on top of the tennis world and was attempting to go for the “calendar grand slam”.
Perhaps this year, Djokovic felt less pressure to achieve history and turned the tables for his own straight-sets victory in a 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 scoreline.
Defeat can often loosen up players. A stinging loss for Roger Federer in the 2019 Indian Wells final to Dominic Theim (even though he won the opening set, 6-3, comfortably) relaxed his body.
At the next Masters 1000 event further south in Miami, Federer’s shots became free and easy, his powerful neo-backhand returned, and he cruised through formidable opponents like Kevin Anderson and John Isner to claim the last big title he ever won.
With Djokovic in New York, it was similar. Gone was the pressure of winning all four slams in the same year after Alcaraz stunned the veteran Wimbledon champion with his controlled aggression.
Djokovic probably likes the idea of having lengthy baseline exchanges, in the expectation that he knows he isn’t going to miss often and wait for his opponent to physically tire or go for broke and make an unforced error.
His flexibility on a hard court in terms of being able to both stretch and slide gives him an added insurance policy.
Lengthy exchanges from Medvedev are not something even Djokovic wanted to get stuck in. He was playing who is perhaps his closest “mirror image” on tour when it comes to preferred style of play (extremely high percentage tennis) and tactical preferences (baseline rallies).
Two years ago, Djokovic was happy to rally, but it was Medvedev who, more often than not, had the patience and ensured his groundstrokes remained within the lines.
Meanwhile, Djokovic anxiously wanted to get the job done, attacking with groundstrokes that became unforced errors. With the memory of 2021 burning in his mind, Djokovic radically switched things up.
Though the match had its fair share of baseline exchanges, Djokovic came to the net an astonishing 22 times for a serve and volley play and won 20 times.
Djokovic also ventured to the forecourt during rallies, winning 37 of 44 points at the net.
Being broken in the first game of the first set put Medvedev immediately on the back foot, going for risky plays like drop shots or over-ambitious passes.
Djokovic, in turn, used crisp volleys or speedy footwork to reach the ball. Strangely, Medvedev missed an opportunity by not trying to disrupt Djokovic’s game in the same way and largely avoided coming to the net unless he had to.
Later, trademark shots from the Serb would appear – the backhand down the line or the backhand drop shot – both plays that further denied Medvedev the crucial rhythm he needed from the baseline and a sign that Djokovic’s confidence was growing, especially after closing out the marathon second set that lasted over an hour and 40 minutes.
A 24th grand slam is significant because of its relevance to other players with large major counts.
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Equalling Margaret Court’s record is something to be celebrated. But is it useful to count grand slams between players of different eras and genders?
Djokovic has often problematised the GOAT debate between himself, Nadal and Federer because it discounts older generations competing with different equipment, access to quality physio and training (compared to modern times), and finances.
He argues that the top players of the day were great in their own way.
Would Rod Laver of the 1960s beat Djokovic of the 2020s? It’s unfair to compare because the playing style was so different back then.
Would prime Djokovic be able to beat prime Serena Williams? Tennis (and most sports) is segregated by gender for a reason: so that one may not have an “unfair advantage” over the other.
Does this mean that Djokovic’s rise up the grand slam count is, therefore, more impressive than Serena’s?
Having a mix of players here isn’t helpful because Djokovic would never get to play against a top female player.
Even relative to other players in his era and the men’s game, Djokovic has reached dizzying new heights.
This is important mentally for the Serb. We have seen how breaking group records (like Djokovic going for the calendar grand slam) can strain players.
But this moment for Djokovic reminds me of when Federer broke Pete Sampras’s record to win 15 major titles in 2009. He no longer has the pressure of competing against someone else’s record or reaching crowd expectations.
Djokovic, like Federer then, is simply in a class of his own, and a calmer mind could unleash even further victories for him.
Even Carlos Alcaraz, Djokovic’s only significant rival, was shown not to be invincible, beaten by him soon after the Wimbledon loss at the Cincinnati Masters in August.
If Djokovic continues to adapt like he has with Medvedev and Alcaraz, then the only man he has to beat is himself.
How significant do you think Djokovic’s victory is? Can we compare him to other great players of the men’s and women’s game in different eras? And how well can he continue to adapt against the top players? Leave your comments below.