Daniil Medvedev began his gracious runners-up acceptance speech at the 2023 US Open by saying, “First of all, I want to ask Novak, ‘What are you still doing here?’” It drew a chuckle from the crowd. And from Novak Djokovic. At 36, Djokovic knows that wisecracks about his age are fair game.
But the Serb still outlasted an opponent nine years his junior 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3, in an exhausting three-hour, 16-minute final, to claim his US Open crown and a joint-record 24th Grand Slam title. He is not a fading force, a 36-year-old straining to hold on to power in a world overrun by 20 somethings. Djokovic is the master of his universe. He just completed one of the best seasons of his career: winning three majors (Australian Open, French Open, US Open) and reaching the final of Wimbledon, and returned to World No 1 on 11 September.
“I had the childhood dream when I was seven, eight. I wanted to become the best player in the world and win the Wimbledon trophy,” said Djokovic, who equalled Margaret Court’s all-time record for most number of Grand Slam titles. “That was the only thing I wanted. I never imagined that I would be here talking about 24 Slams. But the last couple of years I felt I have a shot at history—and why not grab it if it’s presented.”
The US Open hasn’t been the happiest hunting grounds for the Serb in recent years. In 2020, he was disqualified from the major for stupidly, angrily, accidentally hitting a linesperson in the throat with a ball. A year later, he lost out on a chance of completing a calendar Grand Slam (winning all four majors in a year) as he faltered at the last hurdle – the US Open final against Medvedev. Djokovic was not allowed to compete at the 2022 US Open because he was unvaccinated against covid-19.
While there were no such vaccination mandates in place this year, there were still questions over how quickly, and if he could, bounce back from the heartbreaking five-set loss to Carlos Alcaraz in the Wimbledon final in July.
If anything, Djokovic moves on from adversity with a renewed vengeance. Medvedev, who has been in a few bruising battles against the Serb in the past, knew it well. The lanky Russian put in one of the wiliest performances of his career to knock out Alcaraz in the semi-final and quash hopes of a Djokovic-Alcaraz rematch.
“I think the only way I can use [the 2021 final] is thinking that Novak, when he loses, he’s never the same after,” Medvedev said before the 2023 final. “He’s different. It’s just a different mentality. So, I have to use it knowing that he’s going to be 10 times better than he was that day, and I have to be, if I want to still beat him, 10 times better than I was that day.”
In 2021, faced with the prospect of being the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to clinch a calendar Grand Slam, Djokovic had unravelled. Tired from the travel from Europe to Tokyo, for the Olympics, and then to US, the Serb had been bafflingly tame in the final. But Djokovic had learnt from the mistake. This time, he played the opponent not the occasion.
As good as the Serb is at 36, he knew he couldn’t last with Medvedev in long, drawn-out rallies the Russian so revels in. With Medvedev standing almost 20 feet behind the baseline on the return, Djokovic banked on a serve-and-volley game plan his coach Goran Ivanisevic would have been proud of. In the final, Djokovic won 20 of 22 serve and volley points and won 37 of the 44 net points.
But Medvedev, the tactician, wouldn’t give in without a fight. He drew Djokovic into battle in a high-octane second set that lasted an hour and 44 minutes. The 6’6 Russian took some pace of his shots. He also started lengthening the rallies with for subtler angles, drops and lobs, making the Serb run the length and breadth of the court.
As Djokovic and Medvedev produced intense, lung-busting exchanges, the New York crowd grew more raucous, roaring with every swing of the racquet, every dip of the ball. On set point up on 6-5, on Djokovic’s serve, if only Medvedev had hit the backhand pass down the line rather than crosscourt, at the waiting Djokovic, it could have been a different match.
Three rallies in the second-set tie-breaker lasted for 17 shots or more. “Honestly, in the second I felt like I was losing air on so many occasions, and my legs, as well,” the 24-time champ said. “I don’t recall being so exhausted after rallies as I have been in the second set.” Medvedev likened the set to ‘arm-wrestling.’
But Djokovic winning the 21-shot rally to level the breaker 5-5 seemed to have punctured the Russian’s spirit. He let go off the next two points and was a shadow of his fighting self in the third set as Djokovic regained ascendency. The match, and Djokovic’s incredible Grand Slam season, came to a close as Medvedev drilled a forehand into the net. It was the fourth time in his career that Djokovic had won three majors in a season.
Ominously for his competition, Djokovic believes there is room for improvement, a chance for him to raise the bar higher. “I don’t want to leave this sport if I’m still at the top, if I’m still playing the way I’m playing,” he said, before adding with a chuckle. “One day I will leave tennis…in about 23, 24 years.” Once he’s redefined excellence and re-written the history books.
In 1999, a 17-year-old Serena Williams had burst onto the US Open stage as a fully formed champion. For Coco Gauff, the first American teenager since Serena to win in New York, it has been a slow burn. Touted as the next big thing in tennis for a while, Gauff proved her Grand Slam mettle as she scored a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 win over newly minted World No 1 Aryna Sabalenka in the final of US Open. The American neutralised Sabalenka’s power with some breathtaking defence to earn her first major at 19.
Making her Grand Slam debut at 2019 Wimbledon, she had stormed through the qualifiers and entered the fourth round at the age of 15. But since then, Gauff has had to deal with constant comparisons with her idols Serena and Venus Williams. “Imposter syndrome is a serious thing, so sometimes I feel it,” Gauff had said in April. “But it’s something I’m working on to understand that I’m here for a reason, that my ranking is here for a reason, and that I really deserve it.”
Despite growing up in the public eye, Gauff has a good head on her shoulders. She has worked hard on her already mature game, which is propped on a striking serve and rock-solid defence. This season, she added Brad Gilbert, former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, to her coaching team. While she hasn’t quite listened to the 1960s and 70s rock playlists he recommended, Gauff has paid heed to his advice on being more assertive. Gauff’s added aggression, especially on the forehand, helped her stay the course at the US Open.
The 19-year-old overcame the likes of Elise Mertens, returning Grand Slam champion Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Ostapenko to reach the US Open final. In the final, she handled the mercurial Sabalenka (46 unforced errors, 25 winners), the stage and the boisterous crowd expertly to cross the finish line. “I think I just didn’t really believe that I had it in me,” said Gauff, who built a win-loss record of 18-1 this American hard-court season. “This time around, I have been focusing more on myself and my expectations of myself. I really believe that now I have the maturity and ability to do it.”
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter