Juan Martin del Potro may have been the sentimental favorite in Sunday’s US Open men’s final, but Novak Djokovic paid no attention to that on court as he beat the popular, injury ravaged Argentine to collect a historic grand slam title.
Djokovic’s 6-3 7-6 (7-4) 6-3 victory over the 2009 winner under the roof at Arthur Ashe stadium — rain in New York meant cover was needed — gave the Serb a third crown at the US Open and 14th grand slam title overall.
The final went off without a hitch, much to the relief of chair umpire Alison Hughes and tournament officials, a day after Serena Williams clashed with umpire Carlos Ramos in the controversial women’s final.
Ironically, John McEnroe, who quarreled with umpires throughout his career, presented Djokovic with the trophy.
Djokovic pulled into a tie with American Pete Sampras on the all-time men’s leaderboard in majors and now only trails his two contemporaries and greatest rivals, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
“There is a lot of significance of me being now shoulder to shoulder in terms of Grand Slam wins with (Sampras),” Djokovic told reporters. “I watched him win one of his first Wimbledon championships, and I grew up playing and thinking that one day I’ll be able to do what he does. To actually be here, it’s a dream come true.”
Federer’s haul of 20 Grand Slams seems to be in the distance, yet Djokovic is now within range of Nadal’s 17.
And the way the 31-year-old is playing — having won back-to-back majors for the first time since his halcyon days of early 2016 — Djokovic is likely to start next year as the player to beat.
Del Potro was convinced Djokovic, who will return to the top five in the rankings, could overtake the iconic duo.
“Novak has everything to make records in this sport,” he said.
All this after he was slumping a few months ago, a trough that truly began at the end of 2016 when a loss of motivation, private issues and an elbow injury that eventually necessitated surgery quashed his momentum.
“If you told me in February this year when I got the surgery that I’ll win Wimbledon, US Open, and Cincinnati, it would be hard to believe,” said Djokovic, referring to August’s Cincinnati Masters that completed his Masters collection. “But at the same time there was always part of me that imagined and believed and hoped that I can get back on the desired level of tennis very soon.”
Djokovic had to work especially hard to win the year’s final Grand Slam, despite the end tally showing he dropped a mere two sets.
Had to work hard
He needed three hours, 15 minutes to fend off pal del Potro, the key moment resulting when Djokovic saved three break points in a 20-minute game at 3-4 in the second set before nabbing the tiebreak.
In a nice gesture, Djokovic consoled del Potro moments after he was seen weeping in his chair.
“I was crying until now,” del Potro told reporters at the start of his news briefing. “I’m very sad for being a loser today.
“I had my opportunities during the second and third set. But I was playing at the limit all the time, looking for winners with my forehands, backhands, and I couldn’t make them because Novak was there every time.
“He’s a great champion.”
Djokovic particularly struggles in the hot and humid conditions that hit New York over much of the fortnight and looked out of sorts against Marton Fucsovics in the first round — splitting the first two sets, he trailed 4-2 in the third — Joao Sousa in the fourth and giant killer John Millman in the quarterfinals.
Djokovic passed those physical tests and no doubt enjoyed the cooler air that descended upon the Big Apple in time for his semifinal. The roof made for pleasant conditions Sunday, when temperatures outside reached only a high of 68 degrees F, or 20 degrees C.
When Djokovic faces Federer or Nadal, he rarely starts as the crowd favorite.
Del Potro had the majority of the crowd behind him Sunday, too, especially about a dozen of his friends who accompanied him from his hometown of Tandil during the tournament.
They led the cries of “Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, Delpo, Delpo,” most notably in the gripping and decisive second set.
“You can lose or win a trophy, but the love from the crowd could be even bigger than the tournament,” said del Potro. “That’s what I got from them. It will be in my heart for the rest of my life.”
Djokovic enjoyed the atmosphere and didn’t mind the chants of “Ole,” either. Why?
“My nickname is Nole,” he said. “When they shout Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole, that’s what I hear. I actually make myself hear that, to be honest, no word of a lie.”
Del Potro’s wrist issues have been widely documented, with Djokovic aware of what his friend has endured.
The 29-year-old admitted to almost quitting tennis in 2015, when he underwent the last of his four wrist surgeries.
Three operations to his left wrist mean del Potro’s once potent backhand has been downgraded to mostly a slice, although there were encouraging signs at the US Open. The nine-year gap between his first and second Grand Slam finals is the longest ever in the men’s game.
Djokovic too good
While many hope del Potro gets that second major someday, including Djokovic — he is severely owed by the tennis gods — his foe was simply too good in the opening set.
Difficult to pin back and aggressive from the baseline when presented his chances, Djokovic broke for 5-3 and served the opener out with ease. He won 79% of his first serve points in the first.
When he led 3-1 in the second, Djokovic appeared to be cruising to a 15th win in 19 attempts against del Potro.
But seemingly temporarily distracted by del Potro’s supporters getting louder, not to mention the world No. 3’s better play, he was broken back for 3-3.
Del Potro’s laser-like forehand was in full flow and one rocket left actress Meryl Streep with her face in her hands, apparently in awe and disbelief.
But in that critical eight deuce game, the three break chances evaporated. Del Potro crushed a backhand down the line to set up the first chance, subsequently roaring in delight and getting the crowd further into it. On the next point, however, he sent a backhand into the middle of the net.
The forehand came unstuck in the tiebreak. Three unforced errors resulted on that side, with Djokovic forcing an error on the final point as he overturned a 3-1 deficit. Djokovic puffed out his cheeks, knowing the job was virtually done.
Odds against del Potro
Djokovic has only ever lost one match from more than 200 when he has led by two sets — to Austria’s Jurgen Melzer at the 2010 French Open — but there was no sign of that happening again.
“When you have chances against the top guys and can’t make it, they take advantage,” said del Potro, who hit 47 unforced errors and 31 winners.
Despite being pegged back from 3-1 to 3-3 in the final set, he broke again for 5-3.
The end was near and when Djokovic put away a smash on a first match point, he fell onto the court on his back.
Djokovic and del Potro exchanged a hug, as per usual in their tussles.
Del Potro was deprived of what would have been a much deserved second major, but in Djokovic he is facing one of tennis’ all-time greats who has rediscovered his mojo.