By Simon Briggs in New York
Novak Djokovic equalled Margaret Court’s record of 24 major titles with a sweatily brilliant performance in the US Open final, which saw him subdue Daniil Medvedev after a mammoth 104-minute second set.
Djokovic was apparently on the ropes in the later stages of this set, which ran longer than either of their first-round wins. (Medvedev’s had taken 74 minutes, and Djokovic’s 95.) At times, he was stretching out his legs as if he were suffering from cramps. But seasoned tennis watchers will know that he has remarkable powers of recuperation.
In the last regular service game of that set, Medvedev held a break point which would have levelled the score at one set apiece, and thus altered the complexion of the match considerably.
But Djokovic staved off the danger with his go-to tactic on the night: the serve and volley, which paid off 20 times from 22 attempts. This proved to be the decisive moment, and an opportunity which Medvedev – who had beaten Djokovic here in the 2021 final – will surely regret.
“Should have won it,” said Medvedev about that second set. “Passing for sure down the line, not cross [on the set point]. But I have two choices and I chose the wrong one.”
Djokovic sobbed on the court for a few moments after wrapping up his win in 3hr 17min – a remarkable length for a straight-sets match. He then changed into a t-shirt which featured his face alongside that of Kobe Bryan – the basketball legend who died three years ago in a helicopter crash – before running to his player box, where he embraced his family and one famous yet unexpected guest: actor Matthew McConaughey.
For the presentation ceremony, Djokovic pulled on a specially commissioned white jacket marked with the number 24 – as did everyone in his box, so that they made a solid wall of white.
“I had a dream when I was seven,” said Djokovic, who had just become the US Open’s oldest champion at the age of 36. “I wanted to become the best player in the world and to win Wimbledon, that was the only thing I wanted.
“But I started to dream new dreams, I never imagined I would be standing talking about 24 grand slams but the last couple of years I’ve felt I have a chance and I have a shot at history and why not grab it.”
Here was another tactical and technical masterclass from Djokovic, as well as a fine feat of endurance in humid conditions. Medvedev was hoping to grind him down physically, stretching out rallies so that the average point lasted over six shots. (Four is a more typical figure.) But there were times when Medvedev’s passivity proved counter-productive, because Djokovic knows better than anyone when to sit back and when to push.
He came up with the answers he needed in the vital second-set tie-break, especially through his net-game, which proved the difference in this match. Every time Djokovic was under pressure on his own serve, he came in behind it and picked off the volley, winning 37 of 44 points at the net overall.
Medvedev, by contrast, rarely had any access to any “cheapies” – to borrow a term from former world No1 Ashleigh Barty. Almost 80 per cent of his serves came back into play, and then he was forced to chisel out each small success from the unyielding wall of Djokovic’s defence.
After Djokovic’s 6-3, 7-6, 6-2 victory, he has now won 27 of 28 matches at the majors this year, and 16 of 18 tie-breaks along the way – a mind-boggling statistic. This whole match hinged on the 12 points that made up the second-set tie-break, because of the massive physical investment both players had made to get there.
Djokovic was blowing hard at certain stages, and his exhaustion transmitted itself into fallibility on his serve – especially his second serve. But the chair umpire, the USA’s Greg Allensworth, did give him a lot of latitude with the time-keeping.
Djokovic never received so much as a time-violation warning – and he would surely argue that he was always beginning his service action a fraction before the 25-second shot clock had run down. But then, Allensworth wasn’t starting the shot-clock promptly after the conclusion of the previous point.
“The time taken by the umpire to start the clock was almost always more than 10 seconds after the point had finished,” said the former British No1 Tim Henman. “It is adding so much time to these matches. It has to be addressed by the sport.”
While Medvedev was his usual humorous self at the presentation ceremony, there was still an edge to his banter as he said “First of all I want to ask Novak ‘What are you still doing here?’ I mean, come on. I don’t know when you are planning to slow down a little bit.”
Medvedev added that September 10 is his wedding anniversary. “When I won the title two years ago, it was a great anniversary gift for my wife,” he said, before adding bluntly “Pretty s— one today.”