Daniil Medvedev predicted he’d have to play “11 out of 10” to dethrone world No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz at the US Open. After fashioning the best match of his career — a spectacular 7-6(3), 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 semifinal victory — the loquacious Russian exulted, “I played 12 out of 10.”
On what it would take to conquer Novak Djokovic, the undisputed tennis GOAT, Medvedev quipped, “I need to play 15 out of 10.”
In ESPN’s mini-interview before entering the court for the final, Medvedev was asked what he respects about Djokovic. With a knowing smile, he replied, “I could go on forever.” There just wasn’t the time, of course, to cite all his attributes, but Daniil would have to somehow deal with them in yet another high-stakes encounter.
At 36, a long time past the prime of nearly all champions — except age-defying giants Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer — Novak Djokovic is performing better than ever.
For the second time in three years, the splendid Serb came within one victory of a rare Grand Slam. In 2021, the quest for the Holy Grail of tennis had drained Djokovic both physically and mentally, and Medvedev stymied him 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in the final.
The four majors are like dominoes to The Djoker, and this season he knocked down the Australian Open on hard courts and then the French Open on clay. At Wimbledon on grass, it took a colossal and thrilling five-set effort by Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz to thwart his bid for an eighth crown. The fourth domino on the hard courts in New York, it turned out, was the easiest and sweetest to put down.
In retrospect, the perceptive Daniil Medvedev viewed the 2021 U.S. Open final as a mixed blessing. He earned his only Grand Slam title there, but that only motivated Djokovic more. “When he loses, he’s never the same after. It’s just a different mentality,” explained the Russian, who lost four of his next five matches to the Serb. “That’s why he has 23 Grand Slam titles,  Masters 1000s,  weeks at No 1. I have to use it knowing that he’s going to be ten times better than he was that day. And if I still want to beat him, I have to be ten times better than I was that day.”
Perhaps this challenger — or any challenger — should not have this much reverence for the champion. If Medvedev, a sharp tennis analyst, had the time before this historic final, he would have praised Djokovic for his perfect stroke technique, his tactical acumen, his relentless competitiveness, and his ability to perform best when it matters most as evidenced by his winning 16 of his last 17 tiebreakers at major events. Then there are his extraordinary physical assets — speed, strength, stamina, agility, jumps, balance, and flexibility—that the 6’2”, 174-pound athlete has honed for nearly 30 years through punishing practice sessions, rigorous exercises, and impeccable nutrition.
“It’s so important to address everything holistically, multi-disciplinary, so to say because then you will just be more prepared,” Djokovic said. “You will have more tools that you can use in a given moment.”
“When he (Djokovic) loses, he’s never the same after. It’s just a different mentality”Daniil Medvedev
In short, Djokovic has long ranked among the most dedicated and meticulous athletes in sports history because he is determined to make tennis history.
Djokovic may go down as the ‘Perfect Tennis Player’ for all these assets almost as much as for his many records. Nonetheless, he’s endured plenty of setbacks and frustrations during his 19-year pro career, some coming at the US Open and self-inflicted. In 2020, Novak was disqualified for inadvertently hitting a lineswoman with a ball he whacked in anger. In 2022, he wasn’t allowed in the United States because of his stubborn, nonsensical refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccination.
In capturing his fourth US Open and 24th Grand Slam title — which surpassed Serena Williams’ 23 and equalled Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 — Djokovic surrendered only two sets. The 32nd-seeded but unheralded Laslo Djere, a 28-year-old Serb, can someday tell his grandchildren years about his 6-4, 6-4, 1-6, 1-6, 3-6 third-round encounter with Djokovic.
The U.S. hasn’t produced a Grand Slam singles champion since rocket-serving Andy Roddick won the title here in 2003. A bumper crop of young American standouts — Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul, Frances Tiafoe, Sebastian Korda, and Ben Shelton — are touted as potential champions but all of them have major shortcomings and aren’t likely to end the longest and most alarming major title drought in American tennis history.
Djokovic outclassed Fritz 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 to become the oldest male player to reach the U.S. Open semifinals since 39-year-old Jimmy Connors in 1991. Afterwards, Djokovic seemed unconcerned and unimpressed about rising Americans. “It is expected that the people are backing the home player and there is nothing wrong with that. I like the energy and the atmosphere here. I am fine with that. I actually thrive on that energy. I try to use it as a fuel to play my best tennis. I have played this sport for many years, so many epic matches, and I cannot wait for another one in a few days’ time.”
Next up for The Djoker was 20-year-old Ben Shelton. The 6’4” lefty, who never even played No. 1 on his University of Florida team, burst on the scene by making the Australian Open quarterfinals in January in his first trip outside the U.S. He slumped badly since then, going 13-18 before the U.S. Open. Hard court majors apparently ignite his talent, and he surged to the semis after upsetting No. 14 Paul and No. 10 Tiafoe, both in four sets. Boomer Shelton blasted consecutive 149-mph serves, the fastest during the tournament, against Paul.
Not surprisingly, Shelton’s serve made little impact against the greatest returner in tennis history. The exuberant American wound up with just five aces and won only 60 percent of his first serve points as Djokovic romped to a 6-3, 6-2, 7-6(4) victory. To Shelton’s credit, he battled back from a 4-2 deficit in the third set, twice breaking serve to force a tiebreaker. An entertaining shot-maker, Shelton should go back to the drawing board with his father-coach Bryan and improve his serve return, backhand, volley, and shot selection.
Many hoped for a ‘dream final’ featuring Djokovic and Alcaraz. Their sharply contrasting styles and 16-year age difference created an intriguing rivalry between the world’s top two stars, who split their two matches at Slam events this season.
But Medvedev spoiled that prospect by upsetting Alcaraz. Embracing the role of lovable villain against the immensely popular Spaniard, he avenged two decisive losses at Indian Wells and Wimbledon where the extremely talented Alcaraz toyed with him at times.
The IBM Power Index gave Alcaraz, the recent Wimbledon champion, an 81 percent chance of victory. That seemed quite excessive considering Medvedev had won his only major here, ranked No. 3, had a 54-11 match record this season, and made 84 percent of his serve returns while dropping only two sets in five matches that included wins over No. 8 Andrey Rublev and No. 13 Alex De Minaur.
While Alcaraz provided a highlight reel of spectacular shots, particularly at net where he won 54 of 70 points (77 percent), Medvedev was a human backboard returning many of the Spaniard’s most offensive shots and eventually eliciting errors. Carlos committed five such errors in the critical first-set tiebreaker, which Medvedev clinched 7-3 with a forehand down-the-line winner.
When Medvedev served for the match at 5-3 in the fourth set, he had to overcome nerves and a loud, pro-Alcaraz crowd. After Medvedev doubles faulted twice in a row — the first on an errant, 126-mph second serve! — to give Alcaraz his fourth break point of the game, the crowd roared. When Alcaraz staved off a championship point by ending a 20-shot rally with a forehand volley winner, he fist pumped to celebrate. But four points later, the Russian put away a smash to wrap up his highly impressive 7-6(3), 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 triumph.
Medvedev gestured to the crowd for more applause. In the mold of Jimmy Connors, a villain from yesteryear, Medvedev loves New York fans whether they love him or hate him.
Although Djokovic had long been the least tactical of the legendary Big Three, that’s changed this decade, probably because of Medvedev’s unique counter-punching style and extremely deep court positioning on serve returns.
Djokovic repeatedly exploited that with wide serves that created huge openings for penetrating groundstrokes and volleys. The key was that Medvedev never knew when Djokovic would do either option or even drop shot. As ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who formerly coached Andre Agassi, said, “Novak, tactically, is playing the perfect match. He’s never playing the same point twice in a row.”
Even the cleverest tactics require sound execution, and The Djoker’s volley and half-volley were never better. He won an astounding 20 of 22 serve-and-volley points and a remarkable 37 of 44 net points overall. With the geometric brilliance of Pythagoras, Novak angled his volleys to the remotest areas to foil the speedy Medvedev.
A horrible Medvedev service game gave Djokovic a break for a 2-0 lead and all he needed to grab the opening set 6-2. It wasn’t without drama, though, as Novak often gets exhausted, oddly enough early in matches only to become re-energised as the match goes on. Serving with a 3-1, 15-all lead, he staggered after missing a backhand to end a gruelling 36-shot exchange. Knowing he had to shorten points against his much younger opponent, he twice served and volleyed, finishing both points with forehand volley winners.
Djokovic averted another crisis serving at 3-4, 30-40 in the second set. Just when it looked like his legs were giving out in the war of attrition that Medvedev wanted, Djokovic reflexed a jaw-dropping, super-angle half volley winner from the service line off a vicious serve return. He fist-pumped and then won the next two points to hold serve for 4-all.
Medvedev wasted a precious set point with Djokovic serving at 5-6, 30-40. Instead of hitting his passing shot down the line into an open court, he directed it at Djokovic who punched a backhand volley winner. In the nip-and-tuck, pivotal tiebreaker, both players dug deep to summon their energy. When Medvedev blinked first with a backhand error to give Djokovic the tiebreaker 7-5, the Serb’s player box rejoiced as if he’d won the title. Djokovic had his own complicated relationship with New York fans over the year, but when he broke serve to lead 3-1 in the third set, they roared in appreciation. His guts and guile paid off. Meanwhile, Medvedev fought desperately to hang on and held serve to close the gap to 5-3. On championship point, the Russian, exhausted and suffering from a left shoulder injury, erred on a forehand and succumbed 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3.
In a new twist to his victory celebration, Djokovic went down on his knees and put his face to the court. When he got up, he and Medvedev congratulated each other at the net. Then Novak went to the edge of the stands to hug and kiss his adorable daughter before walking up the stadium to celebrate with his wife, son, parents, coach, trainer, and numerous friends.
He put on his colorful “Mamba Forever” shirt which had photos of Kobe Bryant and him on the front to honor the basketball great, his good friend and mentor who perished in a tragic plane crash. The number ‘24’ on the back of the shirt and on his white jacket had a double meaning. It denoted his historic 24th Grand Slam title as well as Kobe’s uniform number.
In his poignant victory speech, Djokovic said, “I fell in love with tennis” and “I’m living my childhood dream.”
On his long and brilliant career, Djokovic said, “I never imagined that I would be here standing with you talking about 24 Slams. I never thought that would be the reality. But the last couple of years, I felt I have a chance, I have a shot for history, and why not grab it if it’s presented?”
The good-natured Medvedev quipped, “I want to ask Novak, what are you still doing here? When are you planning to slow down a little bit? I feel like I’ve not had a bad a career and I’ve won 20 titles, but you’ve won 24 Grand Slams. Wow!”
Coco Gauff wins first Grand Slam title at U.S. Open
“ Coco is arguably the best fighter on the women’s tour.” — Paul Annacone, Tennis Channel analyst and former coach of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.
It was always a question of when — not if — Coco Gauff would win a Grand Slam title. As a 15-year-old qualifier ranked 313th, she upset Venus Williams at the 2019 Wimbledon and streaked to the fourth round.
With Venus and Serena in the twilight of their illustrious careers, the Florida whiz kid was anointed as The Next Great American Player. “If she’s not number one in the world by 20, I will be absolutely shocked,” predicted 1980s superstar John McEnroe.
“Coco’s power and also her movement are at an exceptional level,” praised Pam Shriver, the former doubles great. “I wish I’d had that poise and calm mentality at such an early age,” the legendary Martina Navratilova told The Sunday Times (UK).
Pushed by her ambitious father Corey — much like Richard Williams who had driven his talented daughters 30 years earlier — Gauff declared, “I want to be the greatest. My dad told me that I could do this when I was eight. My dream was to win, and that’s what happened. I think people limit themselves too much. I like to shoot high.”
But Tracy Austin, a teen queen who captured her first major at 16 at the 1979 U.S. Open, had some words of caution. “This is the easy part. Now come all the expectations.” Austin, a Tennis Channel analyst, also worried about the dangers of social media. “Everyone knows everything she does now, every place she goes, and who she goes with.”
Gauff seemed to embrace her newfound stardom. On her Cinderella week at Wimbledon, she said, “It’s pretty surreal how life changes in a matter of seconds.” Her followers on X (formerly Twitter) multiplied and she had fun signing autographs. Her precocity extended beyond the tennis court. Using her sports platform, Gauff spoke out about climate change and racial injustices.
The Billie Jean King maxim — “Pressure is a privilege” — became a double-edged sword for Gauff. While her year-end rankings steadily rose to a then career-high No. 4 and No. 1 in doubles last year, a Grand Slam singles title proved elusive.
When Gauff raced to the 2022 French Open final without dropping a set, the pressure of her debut major final showed as she started the match nervously. Iga Swiatek, the new superstar on clay, capitalised and outclassed her 6-1, 6-3. Swiatek would beat her the first seven times they played.
After Gauff edged No. 10 seed Karoline Muchova 6-4, 7-5 in the semifinals at this U.S. Open, she talked with a mature perspective about what has lessened the pressure that used to burden her. “At first I used to think negative things, like: ‘Why is there so much pressure? Why is this so hard? Blah, blah, blah.’ I realize in a way it’s pressure but it’s not. I mean, there are people struggling to feed their families, people who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, people who have to pay their bills. That’s real pressure, that’s real hardship, that’s real life. In a very privileged position, I’m getting paid to do what I love and getting support to do what I love.”
Two additions to her team also helped take her game to the highest level. Pere Riba, a former ATP pro from Spain, became her coach before Wimbledon, and Brad Gilbert, who helped Andre Agassi achieve greatness, became a consultant in July. The theme for Gauff for the U.S. Open was, “Be more physical.” Riba advised her to put more spin on her sometimes erratic Western forehand to increase its consistency and make the ball bound above the strike zone of opponents. When Gilbert noticed she looked deadly serious during matches, he encouraged her to have fun out there much like Alcaraz.
A disappointing first-round loss to Sofia Kenin at Wimbledon made Gauff determined to turn her summer around. She won the Washington, D.C. title and then her first 1000 event at Cincinnati. The advice of her new coaches had quickly paid off. And her first victory over No. 1 Swiatek — 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 in the Cincy semis — further boosted her confidence going into the U.S. Open.
At Flushing Meadows, where Gauff’s best showing was a modest quarterfinal finish a year ago, she twice dropped the opening set and had to fight for early-round wins over cagey veteran Laura Siegemund and solid-stroking, 32nd-seeded Elise Mertens. She also needed three sets to overcome wild card Caroline Wozniacki. The former No.1 Wozniacki had recently returned to the tour after a hiatus of three and a half years when she gave birth to a girl and a boy. Quickly regaining her backboard-like consistency and precision passing shots, the cheerful Dane defeated No. 11 seed Petra Kvitova and hard-hitting Jennifer Brady, also on the comeback trail.
In the quarterfinals, Gauff played flawless tennis to trounce 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko 6-0, 6-2. It was quite a reversal of the Latvian’s 7-5, 6-3 victory over the American eight months ago at the Australian Open. This time Ostapenko won just seven points in the first set as Gauff’s speedy defence repeatedly neutralised her best shots, and the loser finished with just 12 winners against 36 unforced errors. Another telling stat: Gauff converted only one of seven break point chances Down Under compared to six of seven in New York.
“Regardless of who she plays, Coco becomes the heavy favourite to win this title,” predicted ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez. Part of that confidence was based on the 99 percent pro-Gauff crowds that cheered and hollered after — and sometimes during — every point she won, even when her opponents made unforced errors.
Coco Mania would certainly have made a difference in a highly anticipated Gauff-Swiatek quarterfinal showdown. Ostapenko prevented that when she overpowered the Pole 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 with a barrage of 31 winners (versus only 20 unforced errors). In retrospect, given Ostapenko’s 4-0 career record over Swiatek, the “upset” wasn’t surprising.
The most bizarre episode of Gauff’s fairytale fortnight came when she led Muchova 6-4, 1-0. Three climate change protestors in “End Fossil Fuel” T-shirts interrupted play for 50 minutes when they refused to stop chanting. When tournament security guards and police came to remove the protestors high up in the nosebleed section of Arthur Ashe Stadium, one thwarted them for a while because he glued his feet to the cement floor. As fans chanted “Kick him out!” Gauff casually munched on fresh fruit and took practice serves.
Besides her athletic talent, Gauff is a clairvoyant. On the morning of her Muchova match, she had a premonition. “The crazy thing is I had this thought. I told myself, ‘I bet there’s going to be a climate change protest in the final,’” she said. “When it happened, I knew. I told the ref it was a protest. I don’t know. Something this morning told me it would happen this weekend. It happened at the French Open and at Wimbledon and nothing had happened yet at the US Open, so I thought maybe the trend will continue.”
The Gauff-Muchova semifinal failed to live up to expectations until the last four games. The 5’11” Czech, who nearly beat Swiatek in the Roland Garros final in June, fought valiantly to reach her second major final. When Gauff served for the match at 5-4, she broke the American’s serve to stay alive.
Serving at 5-6 to force a match tiebreaker, Muchova fended off five match points, the fifth on a swinging forehand volley winner. The next point produced a thrilling 40-shot exchange that ended when the speedy Gauff tracked down a Muchova drop shot and smacked a forehand winner. On the sixth match point, Muchova hit an unforced backhand error.
“I knew I had the legs and the lungs to outlast her,” Gauff said afterwards about the critical marathon point. “It was whether I had the mentality and patience to do it. After 10 or 15 shots, I was, like, ‘Well, this is going to change the match.’ I knew that if I could win that rally, that next match point was going to go my way. That’s what happened.”
Aryna Sabalenka, who had already earned enough points to claim the No. 1 ranking on Sept. 11, looked unbeatable in her first five matches, allowing her victims no more than five games. She eliminated 13th-seeded Daria Kasatkina, a light-hitting, tactical Russian, 6-1, 6-3, and 23rd-seeded Zheng Qinwen, an aggressive, 20-year-old Chinese comer, in a 6-1, 6-4 quarterfinal. In the semis, she defeated 17th-seeded Madison Keys 0-6, 7-6(1), 7-6 (5).
The 17th-seeded Madison Keys, a veteran American overshadowed by Gauff, had her most successful U.S. Open since reaching the final in 2017. She lost her serve only twice in five matches while knocking out No. 14 Liudmila Samsonova 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, No. 3 Jessica Pegula 6-1, 6-3, and Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova 6-1, 6-4.
An explosive shotmaker with 26 career wins over top-10 foes, Keys had never ranked higher than No. 7 simply because she made too many errors. During her U.S. Open semifinal run, “Madison found a way to play aggressively at the right time, on the big points,” said Fernandez. Bjorn Fratangelo, her fiancée and coach, improved her shot selection — she hit more backhands crosscourt to reduce the errors — and helped her learn to keep her equilibrium so that she didn’t panic when she hit bad patches.
The Sabalenka-Keys semifinal featured two of the heaviest hitters on the WTA Tour. When two sluggers collide, almost anything can happen. If this were boxing, the 6-0 opening set would have been a first-round knockout. Keys pummeled serves and forehands — her most potent weapons — as never before. But could Keys sustain that sky-high level?
Keys served for the match at 5-4 in the second set. When she went to the corner of the court to towel off, Fratangelo told her, “Get your [serve] return in and hit your forehand down the line.”
Keys lost her serve and then played a dreadful tiebreaker, committing six unforced errors and succumbing 7-1.
Undeterred, the underdog American continued to play superbly for the third set in a row, while Sabalenka matched her shot for shot in the most enthralling duel of the tournament. The deciding set went to a match tiebreaker. Both players had reason to be confident, with Sabalenka boasting a 10-6 tiebreaker record this season, and Keys 5-2.
Sabalenka raced to a 4-0 lead. Pounding massive forehands, she extended it to 7-3. Then, thinking the match was over, the intensely focused Belarusian dropped her racquet to celebrate only to realise she needed 10 points to clinch this tiebreaker. No problem, though. Five points later, she wrapped up the comeback with a forehand half volley winner from the baseline at 12:56 a.m.
“I don’t know how I turned around this match,” Sabalenka told the cheering crowd. She won 14 of the last 19 points.
“She broke the curse of the U.S. Open semifinals,” Mary Joe Fernandez said, referring to the heartbreaking three-set losses Sabalenka suffered against heavy underdog Leylah Fernandez in 2021 and Swiatek a year ago.
The IBM Power Index gave Sabalenka a 60 percent chance of victory in the final. The contrasting styles pitted the best offensive player against the best defensive player.
A solid case could be made for the more consistent Belarusian. She not only captured her first major title and reached the French and Wimbledon semifinals this year but also routed the American 6-4, 6-0 in their only 2023 match on the hard courts at Indian Wells.
On the other hand, Gauff was the hottest player on the tour with a 17-1 record since Wimbledon, and she had nearly all the 23,000 spectators rooting for her.
Would Sabalenka’s serve or volatile temperament break down? Would Gauff’s extreme Western forehand with its long backswing hold up?
Before the final, a confident Gauff said, “I really believe that now I have the maturity and ability to do it.”
And if the going got tough for Sabalenka, she would draw inspiration and resolve from the big tiger tattoo on her left forearm.
The teenager started the biggest match of her life inauspiciously. She lost her serve three times, committing 10 forehand errors. But the veteran’s go-for-broke offense put tremendous pressure on her throughout the opening set.
The most exciting and critical point came with Sabalenka, after fighting off two break points, at 4-2, 40-all. Gauff flashed her mercurial speed to hang in there until Sabalenka smashed away her second overhead.
Sabalenka grabbed the first set 6-2, and it was probably better that Gauff was unaware her opponent boasted a career 11-1 record after winning the first set in finals.
The momentum changed suddenly with Sabalenka serving at 1-2, 40-30 in the second set. Gauff conjured a nifty crosscourt backhand passing shot winner, and many in the delighted crowd gave her a standing ovation. The deflated Sabalenka reacted with an unforced forehand error and a double fault.
“This match could come down to whose forehand holds up better,” said ESPN analyst Chris Evert, who won 18 Grand Slam titles. “Sabalenka is making forehand errors, too.”
So many that Gauff took the second set 6-3. After averaging 10.3 forehand errors in her first six matches, she committed 13 in the third set alone, over-hitting them wildly on important points.
Gauff absorbed and defused Sabalenka’s power and added topspin for forehand consistency to surge ahead 4-0. Like a veteran champion, she served out the last game at love for a stunning 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 triumph. After belting a backhand passing shot winner on championship point, Gauff went down on her back and cried tears of joy and relief. She hugged Sabalenka, wept some more, and went down on her knees to pray. A devout Christian, Gauff said, “I don’t pray for results. I pray to do my best.”
Gauff then romped into the stands to embrace her emotional parents and team. She later said, “That was the first time I saw my Dad cry.”
During the trophy ceremony, Gauff told the happy crowd, “It means so much to me. I feel like I’m a little bit in shock in this moment. That French Open loss was a heartbreak for me, but I realised God puts you through tribulations and trials, and that makes this moment even sweeter than I could imagine.”
At 19, Gauff became the youngest American to win the U.S. Open since 17-year-old Serena Williams in 1999.
Asked about the influence Serena and Venus had on her blossoming career, Gauff paid tribute to the tennis legends.
“It’s crazy (to see my name on the trophy with theirs). They’re the reason why I have this trophy today, to be honest. They have allowed me to believe in this dream, you know, growing up. You know, there weren’t too many just Black tennis players dominating the sport. It was literally, at that time when I was younger, it was just them that I can remember. Obviously more came because of their legacy. So it made the dream more believable. But all the things that they had to go through, they made it easier for someone like me to do this.”
Like the greatest sister duo in sports history, Gauff also excels in doubles. Besides her career-high No. 3 singles ranking, she’s also No. 1 in doubles.
“This sets her up as a player who can win five or 10 more majors because she can still improve,” Evert said. “She has so much wisdom for a 19-year-old. Coco lifted her game to a higher level than we’ve ever seen.”
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