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DJOKOVIC FINDS LOVE, BUT IT WON’T SOOTHE A BLOWN OPPORTUNITY
Of all times to crash, he squandered a chance to enter sport’s all-time pantheon, which allows tennis’ G.O.A.T. debate to rage after he formed a bizarre bond with the city that loathes him
They had come to witness history, dammit. So they weren’t leaving — not Brad Pitt in the private box, not Spike Lee behind the baseline, not the high-volume New Yorkers scattered everywhere — until first trying to will a Grand Slam from the drained, unforced-error-tortured soul of Novak Djokovic.
Remarkably, The City That Never Hugs was embracing a traditional U.S. Open villain, having a peculiar fit of amnesia after years of boos and taunts, its open hostility last year when he angrily smacked a ball that struck a linesperson in the throat, its routine loathing of a cold, joyless robot whose fiendish ruthlessness rendered him unlikeable.
Even when the cause was lost, late in the concluding third set after John McEnroe already had declared the match over on ESPN, the fans kept urging Djokovic with their roars, their passionate applause, their chants of “No-le! No-le!’’ In a quirky, emotional sense, is it possible he achieved more in defeat than if he’d become the first male tennis player in 52 years to win all four major events in a calendar year? Would he have cried and patted his heart afterward if he’d completed his mission and one-upped Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with his 21st career Slam?
He was winning love and adoration, of all things, a feeling more foreign to him than being shamed on the court by a younger, taller Russian who was prepared, focused and composed when Djokovic was unnerved by pressure, succumbing to fatigue and spraying balls throughout Arthur Ashe Stadium as if taking batting practice next door at Citi FIeld. If it’s a dangerous task to psychoanalyze this man, he seemed grateful not to be left alone in his loneliest public moment, a letdown that creates not an exclamation point but a heavy question: Without the Grand Slam that would have separated him from Federer and Nadal, will he still be able to call himself the Greatest Of All Time? For now, oddly enough, he is happier to have made new friends.
"I would like to say that, tonight, even though I have not won the match, my heart is filled with joy and I'm the happiest man alive, because you guys made me feel very special." Djokovic told the crowd. “You guys touched my soul. I've never felt like this in New York, honestly. I love you guys. Thank you so much for your support and everything you have done tonight for me. I love you, and I'll see you soon."
Next up was the man who spoiled the moment, Daniil Medvedev, and the first word out of his mouth was ``Sorry.’’ Addressing Djokovic, he said, “For me, you are the greatest player in history.’’
But still hanging in the air was a reality balloon, delivered by Michael McNulty, board chairman and president of the U.S. Tennis Association, who looked at Djokovic during the ceremony and called him, “One of the greatest players ever.’’ For now, that is accurate. And his harshest critics will point out that THE SENTIMENTAL BASTARD FOLDED UNDER PRESSURE, which he more or less acknowledged in the press conference. The “CHOKE-OVIC’’ headline might be coming yet.
“I was glad it was over because the buildup for this tournament and everything that mentally, emotionally I had to deal with throughout the tournament in the last couple of weeks was just a lot to handle,’’ he said. “Of course, part of me is very sad. It's a tough one to swallow, this loss, I mean, considering everything that was on the line. But on the other hand I felt something I never felt in my life here in New York. The crowd made me feel very special. They pleasantly surprised me. I did not expect anything, but the amount of support and energy and love I got from the crowd was something that I'll remember forever."
As we pause for violins, we’d be foolish to think Djokovic, just 34, won’t gather himself after a winter of rest and keep winning Slams — if not the actual Slam. Still immersed in a career prime that will extend through his mid-30s if he prefers, he has two massive allies in time and health, which will allow him to break free from the Big Three herd and keep dominating as Federer succumbs to his 40 years and Nadal to the inevitability of injury wear-and-tear. Perhaps knowing that he’ll still be the ultimate G.O.A.T., the crowd refused to hiss him into the future after an extraordinary year.
“Three wins, three Slams and a final," Djokovic said. "For the last couple of years, I've been very transparent and vocal about my goals, to play my best tennis at Slams. I'm managing to do that. Of course, I was short today for another Slam title, but I have to be proud with everything that my team and I have achieved. Very soon, there are more challenges coming up. I’ll try to draw some lessons, learn, be stronger and keep going. I still love this sport and I still feel good on the court. As long as there is motivation and that flair, I'll keep riding."
Who said history wasn’t made? This was the warmest and fuzziest love-in ever seen in a moment of profound sporting disappointment and historical failure. It’s probable, with Medvedev and other young guns on the rise, that Djokovic has missed his best and last opportunity to match a milestone last achieved in the men’s game by Rod Laver in 1969. Yet he still can seal the G.O.A.T. debate with victories in his next Slam rotation, starting in January at the Australian Open.
Not that the general enmity for Djokovic has subsided beyond New York. To position oneself for a Grand Slam requires an arrogance that won’t vanish because of one stunning loss. That should have been clear Friday, when he name-dropped his friend and enduring muse Kobe Bryant, whose competitive greed precluded any public embrace until his last years on Earth. Or last week, when Djokovic howled like a wolf in a salute to the wild packs who’ve inspired him since his Serbian childhood, a predatorial streak embraced by his wife, Jelena, who has worn a black “I Run With The Wolf’’ t-shirt in the stands.
“She runs with the wolf,’’ Djokovic told a less sympathetic audience that night. “It can be very stressful to run with the wolf, and she doesn’t enjoy it at all times. It’s kind of living on the edge running with the wolf. But I love her, and she’s given great support.’’
Let it serve as a lesson in how to view his legacy. You’re missing one hell of a thundering ride if you’re fixating more on Djokovic’s persona than his all-time coup of a sport that sheds pretenders as soft and weak. Andy Roddick, who is fortunate to have retired in time to avoid the Novak Swarm and still stands as the last American male to win a Slam event way back in 2003, put it best when he tweeted last week, “First he takes your legs … Then he takes your soul.’’ Besides, cast a glance at the 21st-century landscape in sports, politics and entertainment. Villainy is accepted, if not glorified. Sad to say, charm and immortality might be mutually exclusive and no longer compatible in life.
Warm as he felt in a crushing moment, don’t forget that Djokovic threw another wicked temper tantrum, as he did at the Tokyo Olympics, when Medvedev was taking control in the second set. The racket he destroyed would have a better chance in the express lanes of the Grand Central Parkway. For the tennis world at large, it’s especially impossible to love Djokovic when he’s trying to one-up one of the most universally revered and adored athletes of the day, Federer, while also bumping off the richly admired and magnetic Nadal. It’s one thing to dominate a sport, quite another to terminate the competition with the cold, calculated joylessness of a murderer always holds the gun.
Legions of Novak-haters are very happy the wolf was slayed.
“Probably all these big matches that I’ve won, big titles over the years, have kind of built that kind of aura around me that players know there’s a never-die spirit with me, especially when I play Grand Slams,” he said. “They know that until the last shot, things can turn around, which was the case in several occasions throughout my career. So I’m glad that my opponents think of me that way. I want them to feel that they are under extreme pressure when I’m facing them on a big stage in Grand Slams.’’
Those words, laced with swagger and finality, were uttered early in the tournament. The New Yorkers still didn’t like him much at that point. They actually chanted “Ruuuuune!’’ for a little-known, first-round opponent, 18-year-old Holger Rune. “Obviously you always wish to have the crowd behind you, but it’s not always possible, that’s all I can say,” Djokovic said. A heckler succeeded in rattling him, to the point Djokovic spoke to the chair umpire before the third set, telling him, “Are you going to do something or not going to do something? He’s doing it during the point, just before I hit the ball.’’
It’s ignorant, if not hypocritical, for fans to dislike him by exhibiting their own rude behavior. “When tennis players (act like) that, someone who is watching team sports would say, “What a spoiled brat,’ ” Djokovic said. “If someone intentionally does it over and over again, I have tolerance only up to a certain point. Then it’s not fine. It’s not fair. … The guy I pointed out, he knew exactly what he was doing.’’ How fascinating to see him embrace love now when he has fed off the enmity for years. Quick to point that out is McEnroe, who certainly understands the bad-guy narrative.
“He’s the third wheel when it comes to popularity to those two all-time greats,’’ McEnroe said on the ESPN telecast. “There’s a multitude of reasons. Federer was the first to go on this amazing run. Nadal started to catch up to him. Then Djokovic came along. He’s been chasing both of them down for 10 years. … He’s not as beautiful to watch as Federer and isn’t as physically imposing as Nadal, but as a tennis player, technically, he’s the perfect player. That’s not necessarily the most beautiful thing to watch for fans. That’s why he’s not as universally loved. That’s what’s fueled him his entire career.’’
Whatever final Slam number he lands on — 25 sounds right — we’ll see if Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas emerge as threats to win multiple Slams. To even approach Djokovic’s heights would require a maniacal dedication and undying commitment that has no room for the popular escape hatch of the day — a mental health break. This isn’t to minimize the issues faced by Mardy FIsh and Naomi Osaka, but the sport’s youth culture isn’t conducive to producing impenetrable, merciless beast. His playbook, from his gluten-free diet to his yoga routine to his hyperbaric chamber that helps him recover from injuries, is to outgrind every opponent and menace in his face. It should surprise no one that he describes his manic state in the context of a natural disaster.
“It's kind of a hurricane, a tornado, of emotions that you're going through in a sequence of one set or even one point. You are by yourself on the court, so there is no escape. You've got to find a way," he said. “And I think, over the years, I have managed to develop a formula that works for me.
“I’ve worked over the years to perfect my game so that my game can have literally no flaws. I want to have as complete of an all-around game as I possibly can, so that when I’m playing someone, I can adjust on any surface, I can come up with different styles of play, I can tactically implement the game that I need for that particular match in order to win. Of course, I want my opponents to feel that I can get any ball, that I can play comfortably from back of the court, at the net, serving, returning.’’
The hurricane didn’t make landfall. It must have shocked those who lost to Djokovic, though some contributed to his downfall by extending matches to four and five sets, which let to the statistic that best explains Sunday: Coming in to the final, he had spent 17 minutes and 26 seconds on the Open courts, more than six minutes longer than Medvedev.
“He plays the best tennis when he needs to, which a lot of players don’t,” said Zverev, eliminated in a five-set semifinal churn. “I think mentally he’s the best player to ever play the game. Mentally in the most important moments. I would rather play against anybody else but him.”
“He has this ability — and that’s why he’s probably the best ever — just to step up his level all the time,’’ said Matteo Berrettini, a Djokovic victim in the quarterfinals. “Even if you see him get flustered, he can get ... in his zone. That’s something that, over time, he’s created. You feel that from the other side of the net. From a physical standpoint, I feel like I can play at a high level, but it almost seems like he doesn’t get fatigued. He says, ‘OK, bring it. Tired? I can stay here for three or four days.’ That’s the sensation.”
So unsparing was the mission that he refused to let himself enjoy it. Two nights earlier, when the world wanted to hear his thoughts from history’s doorstep, Djokovic wouldn’t dare go there. Instead, he brought back a Kobe quote from 2009, when the Los Angeles Lakers were up 2-0 in the NBA Finals and Bryant didn’t want to hear about it. “It's his famous interview where he said, 'Why should I be happy right now? Job is not done,' ‘’ he said. "He's been someone, as probably millions of athletes and people around the world have been looking up to him, admiring him. That's kind of an attitude I have. Job is not done. Excitement is there. Motivation is there, without a doubt. Probably more than ever. But I have one more to go.’’
In retrospect, he knew. And maybe now, with an unexpected body blow, we’ll realize how much tennis needs him. Federer and Nadal are fading as takedown artists. On the women’s side, Osaka has drifted into a dark battle with her tortured psyche, while Serena Williams might be ready at 40 to step exclusively into motherhood. You don’t dismiss Djokovic because he didn’t win the Grand Slam.
“As always you have tons of expectations and pressure from just the whole tennis community, including myself,” he said. “Without a doubt that’s something that inspires me. But I am focused on trying to be the best version of myself every day. I know it sounds like a cliché, but there is a great power in being present and working on mentally and emotionally being in the moment and trying to handle it in such a way that would benefit you.”
He won’t be leaving anytime soon. We should appreciate him for what he has accomplished, and not condemn him for what he left on the asphalt in Queens. That said, the world isn’t ready for a cuddly Novak Djokovic. He’s better when people are booing him.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.