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Novak Djokovic Has Earned Faith Until The Very End

Novak Djokovic applauds the crowd
Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

FLUSHING, N.Y. — I've never seen so many Balkan men so pumped and jacked as the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium was when Novak Djokovic smashed his racket in the second set of his U.S. Open final loss to Daniil Medvedev on Sunday. Though the world No. 1 and arguable GOAT has struggled to ever become a real fan favorite due to forces both outside and within his control, he found no shortage of love in New York as he tried to become the first man to capture a calendar grand slam in over 50 years while breaking his tie with Federer and Nadal at the top of the all-time Majors leaderboard. The crowd who traveled out to Queens unreservedly wanted to see history made, and after Djokovic dropped the first set of the match and blatantly showed his frustration in the second, plenty of fans took it as a signal that he needed their support now more than ever.

"I felt something I never felt in my life here in New York," Djokovic said after the match. "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."

It didn't work, though. Djokovic failed to return Medvedev's serve in bounds on the next point and surrendered the game to make it 2-all in the set. Medvedev would go on to beat him in straight sets by final score of 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. Not only is that score kind of viscerally satisfying on a visual level, it's also an absolute shock. Djokovic had not lost a match in a major since the last U.S. Open, when he was disqualified in the fourth round for hitting a ball in annoyance that accidentally struck a line judge. Since then, he's been on perhaps the most terrifying run in tennis history, as he took apart Medvedev in straight sets to win the Aussie Open, came back from two sets down to take the French Open from Stefanos Tsitsipas, and shook off a first-set loss against Matteo Berrettini at Wimbledon to win the final there, too.

Djokovic had shown some weakness in the semis here, as Alexander Zverev took him the distance while Medvedev dispatched his opponent in three. But even if there were signs of fatigue or cracks dating back to his Olympic disappointment, Djokovic in grand slams this year (and really in this entire era) has been so crushingly inevitable that it was hard to even wrap my head around the possibility of him losing. It didn't really enter my head, honestly. When Medvedev took the first set, I was reminded of Berrettini and thought, Well, I guess it'll take four. When Daniil won the second by the same margin, I remembered Tsitsipas and figured Oh, so it'll be an all-time comeback to pull it out. It was only when Medvedev hit this magical, stupidly lucky shot that kissed the top of the net in the heart of the third did the realization dawn that 2021 Djokovic is not quite omniscient. Medvedev would take the next two points to go up 5-1 and all but seal his victory.

Medvedev, pretty much by definition, had the match of his life to win his first-ever Grand Slam title at age 25. Not only did his serve look absolutely unbeatable, but on the points when he didn't get one of his 16 aces, he stood at the baseline and played the role of brick wall to perfection, winning 18 of the match's 25 rallies that lasted nine shots or more by simply waiting on Djokovic to make a mistake. On other days, in other places, a full-strength Djokovic likely still could have demolished the world No. 2. But on Sunday, he looked mentally exhausted by the weight of his year, his success, and the task before him. Late in the match during a changeover, a man often thought of as inhuman held a towel to his face and cried, and following his loss he said he felt relief that he no longer had to think about the calendar Grand Slam.

"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," Djokovic said. "It was a lot to handle."

My lasting memory of this match, though, isn't something quite as headline-worthy as Novak's emotions or Daniil's dead-fish celebration. It'll be the moment when, despite having a massive mountain still left to climb, Djokovic briefly convinced everybody around me and myself that there was still a possibility that he could do it. Down 5-2 in the final set, Djokovic managed to come back from a championship point (where Daniil even got booed a bit) and break Medvedev's serve for the first and only time, sending the crowd into an NBA Playoffs, Ray-Allen-three-pointer-like frenzy that felt like it might be powerful enough to change reality. A solid 95 percent of the Arthur Ashe crowd stood up and demonstrated their appreciation and their desire for more as Djokovic set up to begin the second-to-last game of the match.

Even then, I still kind of thought he would pull it off.

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