The Incomparable “Big Three” Are Poised to Make More History - UBITENNIS
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The Incomparable “Big Three” Are Poised to Make More History

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have been battling mightily for many years to claim the game’s top prizes, and yet they all remain highly motivated. What they have already achieved by winning 58 majors collectively is amazing, but these three magnificent players are still at the forefront of the sport. This piece examines how they have established themselves as the all time leaders among the men at the majors, but also projects the way their gripping race through history at the Grand Slam events might end

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We are glad to announce that Steve Flink, the 2017 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee and long-time tennis insider, has joined the Ubitennis team. He will be writing two monthly long-form features on some of the most relevant topics in world tennis, starting today with a prediction on who will end up winning the most Slam titles among Djokovic, Federer and Nadal.

 

The greatest players in the game of tennis set themselves apart with their supreme craftsmanship, extraordinary artistry and astonishing match playing acumen. They are superior athletes, top of the line competitors and outstanding individuals who know how to achieve with the force of their wills, the strength of their minds and the depth of their commitment. They are better than anyone else because they find the taste of defeat intolerable and they can handle almost unbearable pressure with both equanimity and creativity.

Enter Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, a trio of icons who have thoroughly captured the imagination of the sporting public collectively for nearly two decades, comprehensively dominating the sport with their enduring exploits as commendably as it can be done. Think of it: Federer and Nadal now stand together at the top of the men’s list for most major singles titles won with 20 each, while Djokovic is only narrowly behind his two chief rivals with 18. Federer is 39 years old, Nadal 34, and Djokovic 33, but it hardly seems to matter; all three are impenetrable and, in many ways, ageless. They have battled ferociously against “Father Time”, and still remain the pace setters of the sport at the biggest tournaments.

After Djokovic recently secured his ninth Australian Open title to close the gap between himself and his renowned Swiss and Spanish rivals, sports fans everywhere across the globe started focussing with renewed vigor on the fascinating race for historical supremacy at the uniquely prestigious Grand Slam events among these towering performers. It made all of us reexamine the race, project what might be coming, and look at who will eventually stand atop the tennis mountain when all is said and done.

But before offering my prognosis on how this will all play out, let me reflect on what has transpired over the years that has brought us to this juncture. The past is not entirely prologue, but it is well worth considering in determining what the future might hold for this incomparable trio.

By the end of 2005—when Djokovic was already No. 83 in the world but still only 18 and not yet an authentic contender for majors—Federer had already collected six Grand Slam titles. He had taken his first major at Wimbledon in 2003, adding three of the premier crowns in 2004, and then capturing two more in 2005. That was the year when Nadal at 19 claimed his first major at Roland Garros, and so, even though he was five titles behind his Swiss rival, the dynamic Spanish left-hander was officially on the board and in the chase.

Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, French Open 2005
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (Photo Credit: Live Tennis)

Three years later, at the end of 2008, Federer had widened his lead over Nadal. He now owned 13 major crowns, while Nadal had lifted his total to five yet trailed Federer by an even wider margin than was the case only a few years earlier. Nonetheless, after taking his fourth title at Roland Garros that year, Nadal at last succeeded somewhere else at the Grand Slam Championships, toppling Federer on the lawns of the All England Club in an epic 2008 final to take the world’s premier title at Wimbledon for the first time.

That was surely a pivotal moment not only in the Nadal-Federer rivalry, but also within the realm of the sport. Federer had won Wimbledon five years in a row up until then, but Nadal had overcome the world’s best grass court player on his favorite turf. Meanwhile, Djokovic made his mark during that 2008 season in Melbourne, taking his first title at the Australian Open, claiming his maiden major in the process. That, too, was a landmark moment in tennis history, and clearly a sign of things to come for the charismatic Serbian.

Let’s move on to the end of 2011, when Djokovic celebrated a spectacular season which included triumphs at three of the four Grand Slam events. He had commenced that campaign magnificently, sweeping 41 matches in a row before Federer upended him in the semifinals at Roland Garros.

With that groundbreaking 2011 season, Djokovic now had four Grand Slam titles in his collection but Federer and Nadal stood far above him with 16 and 10 respectively. Remarkably, in 2009, Federer had broken Pete Sampras’s record of 14 men’s majors with his sixth Wimbledon title run. But Federer won only one major in 2010 and none at all in 2011. Nadal picked up five in a three year span to finish 2011 closer to Federer but still well behind the Swiss. And yet, both Federer and Nadal knew that Djokovic was now unmistakably and irrevocably in the hunt. It was still inconceivable then that Djokovic could ever catch up with Federer, but astute followers of the game knew that Djokovic was just beginning to explore his full potential.

Sep 13, 2015; New York, NY, USA; Novak Djokovic of Serbia greets Roger Federer of Switzerland before the Men’s Singles Final on day fourteen of the 2015 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The fact remained that Djokovic picked up only three more majors from 2012-2014—less than many astute observers anticipated. Nadal amassed four majors across that three year period, while Federer took just one Grand Slam title in that span—Wimbledon in 2012. And so the count stood this way when the curtain closed on 2014:  Federer 17, Nadal 14, and Djokovic 7. 

Consider where things stood at the end of 2017. That season Federer and Nadal divided the four majors while Djokovic had a difficult season. In 2015 and on into 2016, Djokovic had established himself as the first man to win four majors in a row since Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969. He won three majors in 2015 and two more in 2016 but then suffered with elbow issues in 2017 and was unable to add to his collection. By the time 2017 ended, Federer had climbed to 19, Nadal had amassed 16 and Djokovic held 12 of the big prizes. The cognoscenti of tennis was fixated on the race between Federer and Nadal. They were a pair of revitalized competitors who were climbing regally through history, but well aware that Djokovic was making inroads.

Nevertheless, since Nadal is five years younger than Federer, there was a growing feeling that he was the man who might eventually equal or surpass Federer at the majors. Djokovic was struggling physically. Most authorities believed that the Serbian was destined to conclude his career in third place on the all time list, likely to pass Sampras eventually yet a long shot to overcome Federer and Nadal.

But look at what has happened since. Djokovic had surgery on the elbow, but by the middle of 2018 he was once more at the top of his game and back in the flow of winning when it mattered the most. He secured the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 2018, added two more majors in 2019, and has now been victorious at the last three Australian Open Championships.

He has been the champion at six of the last ten majors, raising his total of career Grand Slam titles to 18. Nadal, meanwhile, tied Federer at 20 last autumn with his 13th French Open triumph. The Spaniard’s consistency—most prominently at Roland Garros—has been his greatest virtue. He set a men’s record by securing at least one major for ten years in succession (2005-2014). In 14 of the previous 16 seasons, from 2005-2020, he took one or more majors. He has earned his place right alongside Federer at the top of the list. The Swiss Maestro, however, has been out of circulation at the majors since he lost to Djokovic in the semifinals of the 2020 Australian Open. Prior to that, he had two match points in the 2019 Wimbledon final before falling short against Djokovic in a blockbuster, bowing gallantly in a fifth set tie-break played at 12-12. He had missed out on a golden opportunity to oust both Nadal and Djokovic in the same Grand Slam tournament, a feat he has never realized.

Federer will return soon in Doha after more than a year away from the game following two knee surgeries. He must never be underestimated. In 2017, he returned from another knee surgery and, after six months away from the game, stunned Nadal in the final of the Australian Open, spectacularly winning five games in a row from 1-3 in the fifth set to seal the crown. Later that year, he won his eighth Wimbledon title to set a men’s record and then, at the start of 2018, defended his Australian Open crown.

That was Federer’s third triumph in his last four Grand Slam tournaments (he skipped the 2017 French Open) and the Swiss was on a glorious run. But now he faces the reality of turning 40 in August and coming back after a long hiatus. He might well bypass Roland Garros again and pour all of his energy and inspiration into winning Wimbledon for the ninth time and thus secure a 21st major.

As the most natural grass court player in the world and a champion utterly determined to flourish once more when it counts the most, Federer must be taken seriously in London. And that could be his last best chance to prevail at a major tennis tournament. I would not put it past him to win this year on the Wimbledon lawns.

And yet, as prodigious as he remains, the odds are against Federer winning any more majors. But that is not the case, of course, with both Nadal and Djokovic.

Rafa Nadal e Novak Djokovic – Roland Garros 2020 (via Twitter, @rolandgarros)

The Spaniard will be a huge favorite in June to win Roland Garros for the fifth year in a row and the 14th time overall. He would then move ahead of Federer for the first time and lengthen his career lead over Djokovic at the four majors to three titles. Djokovic has worked inordinately hard to move within two titles of his premier rivals, and a Nadal victory in Paris (which I fully expect) would put an added burden on Djokovic at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Djokovic would sorely need to win at least one of those two tournaments. Prevailing at both will be difficult, but not impossible. He has won five Wimbledon titles altogether, including the last two times he played there in 2018 and 2019. At the U.S. Open, Djokovic has not exploited his opportunities nearly as well, losing five of his eight finals in New York.

My prediction is for Djokovic to win one more major this year at Wimbledon, and thus remain two behind Nadal. He would then be only one behind Federer in this compelling historical chase. In my view, Nadal will conclude the 2021 campaign with 21 majors and Djokovic will stand at 19.

What happens then? To be sure, 2022 will be crucial for both the Spaniard and the Serbian. I believe Djokovic has a very good chance to take his tenth Australian Open title, and will once more make a big push at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The view here is that he will capture two majors (the Australian and U.S. Opens) during the 2022 season. The question is this: will Nadal win a 15th French Open? If he does, (and I say he will) the two great players would be separated by one major title heading into 2023 as Nadal gets to 22 and Djokovic makes it to 21 next year.

The view here is that 2023 could well be the last big year for both superstars. Nadal will turn 37 in June of that year; Djokovic reaches 36 in May. They must make the most of their openings. I am guessing that Nadal will finally lose again at Roland Garros and that he will not win any of the “Big Four” titles in 2023. Djokovic, however, will find a way to secure two more majors at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. That would be a tall order for the Serbian, but I believe he can realize that feat.

So there you have it. Djokovic will conclude his career with 23 majors and Nadal will settle for 22. Federer should remain at 20. Would that resolve, once and for all, the G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time) debate? Not necessarily. First of all, neither Rod Laver nor Pete Sampras can be overlooked in that debate. Laver won two Grand Slams, achieving that feat in 1962 and 1969. Sampras spent a record six consecutive years at No. 1 (1993-98) in the world and competed in an era when there was a greater diversity of playing styles in the upper regions of the sport, and yet he won 14 of 18 finals at the Grand Slam events. In my view, Sampras at his best indoors and on hard and grass courts is a better player than anyone who has ever lifted a racket.

Can we judge Federer, Nadal and Djokovic solely on their numbers at the major tournaments? The answer, emphatically, is no. Djokovic currently holds a 29-27 career head to head lead over Nadal and has a 27-23 record against Federer. Those figures matter. That strengthens the Serbian’s case. A feather in the cap of Federer is his astounding consistency. He has won 103 tournaments overall in his career while Nadal has amassed 86 and Djokovic 82. I doubt either Nadal or Djokovic will ever catch up to Federer. The larger question is: can Federer can move past Jimmy Connors, who owns an Open Era record 109 career titles? I doubt Federer will surpass Connors, but he has an outside chance. Federer once reached 23 consecutive semifinals at the majors (2004-2010) in his prime and made it to at least the quarterfinals in 36 straight majors (2004-2013). That is an unmatched standard of enduring excellence.

Djokovic will break Federer’s record for most weeks at No. 1 in the world next week when he goes to 311, and, if he can finish 2021 at No. 1, he would be the first man ever to end seven years stationed at the top. And what of Nadal? No one has ever dominated so comprehensively on a surface as he has on clay. So only time will tell where these three great men end up on the historical ladder of tennis. Meanwhile, we can all marvel at this trio as they make more history, inspire us with their heroics and wrap up their shining careers.


Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist and writer for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

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ATP Moves Closer To Staging Five More 12-Day Masters 1000 Events After Board Approval

Changes are coming to the men’s Tour which includes a brand new ‘profit-sharing formular’ for players.

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Masters tournaments in North America, Europe and Asia are set to be expanded over the coming months after the ATP Board recently approved some ‘key aspects’ of their strategic plan.

 

In a letter issued to players, ATP chairman Andrea Gaudenzi said an agreement has been reached concerning a variety of topics, which include the expansion of various Masters 1000 events. It is understood that the plan is for Rome, Madrid, Canada, Cincinnati and Shanghai to be increased to 12-day events instead of just one week. Putting them more in line with Indian Wells and Miami. Tennis.com reports that under the new structure, ATP 250 events will also take place during the second week of those tournaments and they could receive a subsidy from the ATP Tour, provided by extra fees paid by the Masters tournaments.

Masters 1000 events are the third highest-ranked category events in men’s tennis after Grand Slams and the ATP Finals in terms of prize money and ranking points on offer. The series was first introduced back in 1990 but it wasn’t until 2009 that the name ‘Masters 1000’ was born. The number represents how many ranking points the winner receives.

Besides the proposed changes to the Masters series, the Board has also given a green light to “a new Profit-Sharing formula” and “long-term prize money levels.” The prize money increase is reportedly said to be 2.5 percent of a base level, plus a bonus pool with a 50 percent share of the collective profit of the Masters events.

“This represents significant progress for our sport and the way our player and tournament members operate under the equal partnership of the ATP Tour. It is only through the spirit of this partnership, transparency, and alignment of interests that we can truly maximise your potential and switch our focus to the competition we face in the border sports and entertainment landscape,” Gaudenzi wrote in his letter to players.

Part of the plan also include making changes to ATP Media, who are in charge of broadcasting the events. At present it is currently jointly owned by the Tour and each of the Masters 1000 events. However, in the future it has been proposed that those tournaments trade in their ownership rights for shares in ATP media. Exact details about this process have not been publicly disclosed and it is unclear if all of the tournaments would agree to such a move.

The ATP also wants to create a ‘Tennis Data Innovations’ which will be an independent entity.

All of these proposed changes are still subject to further agreement around additional matters. The ATP have been working on details of their strategic plan for the past 18 months.

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ATP To Make Changes To Toilet Break And Medical Time-Out Rules Ahead Of 2022 Season

Rule changes on toilet breaks and medical time-outs are set to be implemented before the start of the 2022 season.

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Stefanos Tsitsipas (@ToiSports - Twitter)

The ATP are set to make changes to the rules around toilet breaks and medical time-outs ahead of the 2022 season.

 

The issue of toilet breaks and medical time-outs has been long a discussion in tennis with players often accused of using the lenient rule concerning these two topics to gain an advantage using gamesmanship.

More recently this issue has flared up with Stefanos Tsitsipas accused of using eight minute toilet breaks to take the momentum away from his opponent just like he did against Andy Murray at the US Open.

The Greek has often denied that he has done it for those reasons and says he has not broken any rules.

However that might be about to change as an ATP source has told Reuters that there are discussions to change these rules next year, “There will be a change to the rules for bathroom breaks and on-court medical timeouts as well,” an ATP source told Reuters.

“I hope that before the next season begins in January, we will have a stricter rule when it comes to toilet breaks and medical timeouts. I think it’s getting to the point where it’s definitely becoming a big issue. It’s been an issue for a long time but we are taking quite a serious approach now to try and change it.”

Players such as Sloane Stephens and Alexander Zverev have also spoken out against the gamesmanship surrounding toilet breaks and medical time-outs.

Although Tsitsipas did get some support from world number one Novak Djokovic who doesn’t believe the Greek deserved the criticism that he got, “I’ve got to stand for Stefanos Tsitsipas,” Djokovic told reporters at the US Open.

“I don’t think he’s doing anything wrong. I support him. The rule is not clear. Of course you can argue it’s all relative, everyone sees it differently. This was a hot topic last couple of weeks. I think he didn’t deserve that much attacks that he was getting in the media from everyone.”

Changes are hoping to be made before the Australian Open in January which starts on the 17th of January.

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US Open, Medvedev Finds His Spot among the Greats, but Djokovic Is Not Done Winning Yet

The Russian can become a threat on every surface. The world N.1 couldn’t find his best game to clinch the Grand Slam, but won over the crowd like never before

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The cognoscenti of tennis have been waiting for a couple of years for Daniil Medvedev to place his name among the game’s elite performers as a champion at a Grand Slam event. Medvedev has been on the verge of this accomplishment for quite some time. Through the summer of 2019 and on into the fall, he made immense strides as a player of the front rank. In that span, he made it to the final of all six tournaments he played. Most importantly, he moved agonizingly close to establishing himself as the U.S. Open champion. Confronting none other than Rafael Nadal, Medvedev was down two sets to love and trailing by a service break in the third set but, stupendously, he nearly won that match and claimed that title.

 

Medvedev pushed Nadal into a harrowing five setter that stretched from late afternoon well into the evening. He even battled back from two breaks down in the fifth set and saved two match points before Nadal held on from 30-40 in the last game of a compelling contest to win 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4. Medvedev had concluded 2018 stationed at No. 16 in the world but his stirring surge in 2019 enabled this estimable individual to reach No. 5.

The 6’6” Russian continued along his ascendant path in a stellar 2020 campaign. He made another spirited run at the U.S. Open crown, sweeping into the semifinals without the loss of a set before losing to an inspired Dominic Thiem. Undismayed by that setback, Medvedev was invincible at the end of 2020, capturing back-to-back titles as the Masters 1000 event in Paris and the year-end ATP Finals at London, where he went undefeated in the round robin event. Moreover, he ousted the top three seeds in that tournament—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem—and that was an unprecedented feat.

In that spectacular span of two tournaments and ten match victories in a row, Medvedev accounted for no fewer than seven wins over top ten players. By the time Medvedev reached his second Grand Slam tournament final at the start of this season, he had raised his total to 20 matches in a row. Many authorities believed Medvedev would make his breakthrough on that Melbourne stage and take his place as a major champion, thus underlining his authenticity.

But Djokovic denied Medvedev that prestigious prize, playing a masterful strategic match and executing it to the hilt, winning a ninth Australian Open with a comprehensive 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 triumph.

That setback took more than a little wind out of Medvedev’s sails. He did make some amends that could be construed as positive steps. Arriving at Roland Garros with a career match record of 0-4, Medvedev found some confidence on the red clay and went to the quarterfinals but, much to his chagrin, he was soundly beaten by Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals of the French Open. Medvedev had toppled Tsitsipas in six of the seven head-to-head battles they had fought up until Roland Garros, so that setback had to be stinging.

On to Wimbledon went Medvedev, and once more he reached the fourth round of a Major. But he let a two-sets-to-one lead against Hubert Hurkacz still from his grasp in a two day meeting, falling in five sets. And yet, Medvedev did recover his form over the summer when he won the Masters 1000 title in Canada.

And so he came into the U.S. Open as the No. 2 seed, quietly confident and cautiously optimistic, a man on a mission. Medvedev took advantage of a favorable draw. He did not drop a set prior to the quarterfinals, but did struggle slightly against the Dutch qualifier Botic Van de Zandschulp before winning 7-5 in the fourth set. But then he took apart No. 12 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime in straight sets.

That win over the athletic Canadian took Medvedev into his third major final and his second in New York. To most avid tennis observers, it was a fitting way to settle the outcome of the last major in 2021 when it all came down to Medvedev against a man on an ineffable historical quest named Novak Djokovic.

The world No. 1 was coping with the kind of pressure that only a fellow of his extraordinary stature could possibly understand. Once he had captured his second French Open in June to put himself half-way to a Grand Slam, Djokovic had his mind fixated on that lofty goal. He went to Wimbledon not simply to win the world’s premier tennis tournament but to garner a third major in a row and go to New York in search of the last piece in the puzzle. No one in men’s tennis since Rod Laver secured his second Grand Slam in 1969 had taken the first three majors of the season to land in such lofty territory—one tournament away from a Grand Slam.

Surely Djokovic was informed by media figures and fellow players that only five players had ever taken all four major tournaments in a single year to win the Grand Slam. The first time it was done was in 1938, when the Californian Don Budge—owner of perhaps the best backhand tennis has ever witnessed—pulled off the remarkable feat. Maureen Connolly was next on the list in 1953, succeeding largely because her ground strokes were the best in the women’s game and her footwork was exemplary. The left-handed Laver—an incomparable Australian shotmaker— took his first Grand Slam in 1962 as an amateur and his second as a professional seven years later.

Next up was another Australian stalwart. Margaret Smith Court—a magnificent attacking player— realized her dream of the Grand Slam in 1970. Eighteen years later, it was Steffi Graf’s turn. The German with fast feet and explosive forehand was unbeatable at the Grand Slam tournaments in 1988.

So there you have it. No one since Graf has won the Grand Slam, proof of what a difficult task it is for both the men and the women. Keep in mind as well that some of the sport’s most luminous figures have never come close. To be sure, Roger Federer celebrated three seasons (2004, 2006 and 2007) when he was victorious at three of the four majors, but he never made it even half-way to a Grand Slam because he was unable to come through at Roland Garros in those years. The one year he won the French Open (2009) he had already lost to Nadal in the Australian Open final.

Nadal won the last three majors of 2010 in Paris, London and New York but he had been beaten at the Australian Open in the first one. The only time Nadal won the Australian Open in 2009, he suffered his first loss at Roland Garros against Robin Soderling and the Grand Slam chance was gone. Djokovic himself managed to sweep four majors in a row from Wimbledon of 2015 through Roland Garros of 2016. That meant he was actually half-way to a Grand Slam in 2016 but he lost in the third round of Wimbledon to Sam Querrey so that opportunity evaporated.

Meanwhile, a small cast of players has won the first three majors of the year to stand within striking distance of a Grand Slam. The first one was Jack Crawford of Australia in 1933. He took the first three and then was in the final of Forest Hills at the U.S. Championships. He was only one set away from the Grand Slam but lost to the gifted Englishman Fred Perry. Similarly, the Australian dynamo Lew Hoad was also one match away from a Grand Slam in 1956 but his countryman Ken Rosewall knocked off Hoad in the Forest Hills final. And then in 1984, Martina Navratilova was the champion at the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. At that time the Australian Open was the last major fo the season, and Navratilova was beaten in Melbourne by Helena Sukova in the semifinals.

And so Djokovic was surrounded by all of these historical facts as he came to the U.S. Open this year. The 34-year-old was seeking to establish himself as the oldest player ever to win a Grand Slam, and he navigated his draw well across an arduous fortnight in New York. At the U.S. Open, his anxiety was evident all the way through the tournament but time and again Djokovic overcome his difficulties and raised his game when he needed to.

In the first round he went into a tailspin in the second set against Danish qualifier Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune but romped in the end 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-1 as the teenager suffered with cramps. The Dutchman Tallon Griekspoor faced Djokovic in the second round and the top seed granted his adversary only seven games across three sets. 2014 U.S Open finalist Kei Nishikori took the first set from Djokovic before the Serbian beat him for the 17th time in a row 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3, 6-2. In the round of 16, the young American wildcard Jack Brooksby came out with deep intensity and Djokovic was unsettled, but the 34-year-old found his range in the second set and never lost it, winning 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.

Now in the quarterfinals Djokovic was pitted against the No. 7 seed Matteo Berrettini. The flamboyant Italian had lost to Djokovic in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and again in the final at Wimbledon. Now Djokovic prevailed for the third time in a row against the big server 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3.

So the stage was set for Djokovic to play No. 4 seed Sascha Zverev, who was on a rampage. Zverev had won 16 matches in a row heading into his appointment with Djokovic, taking the gold medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo and then winning the Masters 1000 tournament in Cincinnati. In Tokyo, Zverev rallied from a set and a break down at 6-1, 3-2 but swept eight games in a row and ten of the last eleven to win 1-6, 6-3, 6-1.

But in New York, Djokovic played his best match of the tournament, turning the tables on the German. Djokovic rallied ferociously again to gain a pulsating five set triumph over Zverev 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 in three hours and 34 minutes. In the fifth set of that scintillating encounter under the lights, Djokovic collected 24 of 30 points to open up a 5-0 lead. Although Zverev pridefully won the next two games, Djokovic finished it off with a third service break of the set in the eighth game.

Many of us expected Djokovic to repeat his Australian Open final round win over Medvedev in New York. No one was taking Medvedev lightly or assuming he would not put up the toughest possible fight. But Djokovic’s big match prowess and his vast experience on the premier stages was paramount in the minds of many experts. This was, after all, his 31st Major final, a record number he shares with Federer. Moreover, Djokovic has grown immeasurably across the years as a player who knows how to bring out his best on the biggest occasions.

He had won 12 of his previous 14 finals at the Grand Slam events heading into this U.S. Open.  Djokovic’s record was once 6-7 in the middle of 2014, but he then won 14 of 17 to put him at 20-10 in his career leading up to Flushing Meadows. That success rate made him the favorite at the Open to win a record 21st Major crown as well as realizing the most demanding goal of his career—a Grand Slam sweep of all four majors.

But it was apparent from the outset of his duel with the 25-year-old Russian that Djokovic was nowhere near the level he needed to be physically, mentally or emotionally. The first ominous sign was in the opening game of the match. Djokovic led 40-15 but he was coaxed into four consecutive errors and thus lost his serve immediately. Medvedev was clearly buoyed by that beginning, holding his serve at 15 for 2-0 with two aces. Djokovic then fell into a 15-40 hole by making his eighth unforced error of the young match. Although he won four points in a row and finished off that third game with two aces, Djokovic had not commenced this contest with the standard he needed to meet the moment.

Medvedev required only 47 seconds to hold for 3-1 by virtue of two aces, a service winner and a forehand winner. In his next three service games, Medvedev conceded only two points. Djokovic was not reading that serve at all and was slow to react whenever he did. Medvedev captured that set confidently, 6-4.

It was early in the second set that Djokovic found some openings that might have altered the course of the match had he exploited them. He reached 0-40 on the Medvedev serve but steered a forehand retrieve of a drop shot and was passed down the line off the forehand by the Russian. Medvedev released an ace for 30-40 and then Djokovic botched a backhand slice, sending that shot into the net. He was infuriated. Medvedev held on crucially for 1-1 with an ace followed by a service winner.

Djokovic saved a break point on his way to a 2-1 lead and then had two more break points in the fourth game, but Medvedev produced a low forehand drop volley that drew an errant forehand pass from the Serbian, and then saved the second break point with a backhand down the line deep into the corner that Djokovic could not answer. Medvedev made it to 2-2, broke Djokovic in the fifth game as the top seed put only one of six first serves in play, and then the Russian conceded only two points in his last three service games to wrap up the set 6-4.

Djokovic was clearly despondent. He was not simply below par as he would say later; he was way off his game in every respect. Medvedev rolled to 4-0 in the third and soon moved to 5-1. The capacity crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium was filled with Djokovic fans cheering him on vociferously, but they had little to shout about for most of the proceedings. Djokovic held on in the seventh game. Medvedev had a match point at 5-2 but served a double fault at 120 MPH into the net as the crowd callously applauded his mistake. He then served another double fault and Djokovic went on to break. When Djokovic held easily in the ninth game, the crowd’s applause for a man they had seldom supported was astonishing and much appreciated by the world’s best tennis player.

Djokovic shed tears into his towel at the changeover. Medvedev then served for the match a second time and released another double fault at 40-15. No one knew it then, but the Russian was fighting cramps, a fact he hid awfully well from his opponent and the audience. At 40-30 his first serve was good enough to force Djokovic to miss the return, and so Medvedev averted a potential crisis to defeat his rival for the fourth time in nine career clashes 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

Medvedev had handled the occasion remarkably well and had tuned out the crowd with great discipline. For Djokovic the situation must have been both maddening and saddening. To have an audience so fervently behind him at one of the Majors is something he has rarely if ever experienced. But he struggled inordinately to find anything even resembling his best tennis. He approached the net 47 times in the three sets and won 31 of those points. He played serve-and-volley surprisingly well, taking advantage of Medvedev’s court positioning so far behind the baseline for his returns.

But Djokovic had neither the patience, the physicality or the inclination to stay back and grind with Medvedev the way he always has done. His legs were too weary, and his mind was cluttered. In the end he played into Medvedev’s hands. The Russian is among the most astute players in the sport to read the map of a match and adjust his strategy. Medvedevs’ shot selection, variation of speed and pace, and capacity to make Djokovic uncomfortable were first rate. Medvedev knew full well he was not playing the essential Djokovic, but he was performing in front of an antagonistic crowd and trying to pull off a first Major title. Those were not easy circumstances but Medvedev was able to deal with it ably. Medvedev did everything that was asked of him and more. He was thoroughly professional.

When it was over, Djokovic was very gracious and unwilling to drown himself in a sea of self pity. He lauded Medvedev and refused to make any excuses for his sixth defeat in nine U.S. Open finals against five different opponents.

There will never be another opportunity like this for Djokovic. He admirably put himself three sets away from the first men’s Grand Slam in 52 years. That can hardly be portrayed as a failure. Losing in New York will only make Djokovic more motivated for 2021 and the pursuit of a 21st Major title in Melbourne that would enable him to stand alone at the top of the list for most men’s majors and separate him from his co-leaders Federer and Nadal. He will turn 35 in May but Djokovic remains very young for his age. To be sure, he looked much older against Medvedev, but that was circumstantial. He has a lot of winning left to do.

As for Medvedev, this triumph at the U.S. Open should lead to many more landmark victories. Over the next seven years, he should be good for at least five or six more majors, and perhaps a larger number than that. The key to where he ends up will depend to a large extent on his adaptability. Medvedev has proven irrefutably that he is a prodigious hardcourt player and that will put him in good stead at both Melbourne and New York year after year. But can he demonstrate a larger self-belief on grass and clay courts?

To be sure, he did well this year with his quarterfinal appearances at Roland Garros. But he will need to prove that he can do more damage than that on the red clay of Paris and the lawns at the All England Club. Had he finished off Hurkacz this year in London, Medvedev would have almost surely made the final and played Djokovic there. Had he managed to overcome Tsitsipas in Paris, he might have gone to the final there.

The view here is that Medvedev will make inroads on the other surfaces and be a threat everywhere in the years ahead. The 2021 U.S. Open was a launching pad for a competitor with a wide range of goals and deep determination. He will often be going to other lofty destinations in 2021 and beyond.

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