A year ago, recovering from injuries and mired in a protracted slump, Novak Djokovic didn’t even play the US Open. Seven months ago, still beset by elbow pain, Djokovic had serious doubts he would resurrect his once-brilliant career.
After capturing the US Open this past fortnight, the resurgent Serb confided, “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. 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’s deep convictions have always overcome his nagging doubts. His frustratingly long two-year comeback had finally gained some momentum after an abysmal 6-6 start this season when he gained the Italian Open semifinals. A bitter French Open setback in June, though, tested his convictions yet another time. Heavily favored in the quarterfinals against No. 72 Marco Cecchinato, Djokovic squandered a 5-2 lead in the fourth set and three set points in the 13-11 tiebreaker to lose 6-3, 7-6, 1-6, 7-6. He was so crushed by the shocking defeat that he said, “I don’t know if I am going to play on the grass.”
To renew his zest for the game, Djokovic embarked on a five-day trek in the French Alps. “I felt that was the best thing to do, to disconnect and isolate and go into nature and connect with nature,” Djokovic told Eurosport. “Just, you know, clear the thoughts, recharge the batteries. When we were climbing one of these mountains—I remember that moment—I was sitting and just breathing in the fresh air and looking at the world from that perspective. I thought of tennis and the emotion that tennis provokes in me and I felt that passion again. It was a turning point in a way, for sure.”
Revitalized, Djokovic bounced back to play well on grass, reaching the Queen’s Club final. Then he regained his superstar status by winning his fourth Wimbledon and 13 Grand Slam title. There Djokovic overcame his longtime archrival and current No. 1 Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8 in a semifinal classic lasting five hours and 15 minutes. His 6-2, 6-2, 7-6 rout of Kevin Anderson in the final was expected and anticlimactic.
During his own remarkable, feel-good comeback, Juan Martin del Potro endured much more adversity and for a much longer time than Djokovic did. When the 20-year-old Argentine shocked five-time champion Roger Federer 3-6, 7-6, 4-6, 7-6, 6-2 in the memorable 2009 US Open final, many experts predicted he, along with Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, would dominate the men’s game in the next decade.
Instead, a series of wrist injuries and surgeries derailed and nearly destroyed Del Potro’s career. In the next seven years, he missed 13 majors, and when he did compete, his game was compromised. His once-strong two-handed backhand lost power, and he was often forced to use a less-aggressive, one-handed slice to reduce the pain.
A determined Delpo
“The worst moment was in 2015,” recalled Del Potro. “I was close to quitting this sport because I couldn’t find a way to fix my wrist problems. I [had] been suffering a lot. I got depressed for a couple of months also. I didn’t feel better with myself to do this again. I said I am not available to keep going to surgery again, put my body at risk because you never know what will happen after surgeries. I got lucky, because it did well. And now it’s working again. My wrist is OK. Not 100 percent, but I can play tennis in this condition.”
Delpo’s determination paid off in 2016. He beat Nadal and Djokovic for a silver medal at the Rio Olympics, reached the US Open quarterfinals, and led his beloved Argentina to its first Davis Cup. “More than anything else, I play for Argentina,” its hero said.
Last year he knocked off Federer and Dominic Thiem to make the semifinals at the US Open, his favorite tournament. Heading into this US Open, Del Potro impressively peaked at the most prestigious events: he won Indian Wells, reached the semis at the French Open and Miami, and made the Wimbledon quarters.
In short, the “Tower of Tandil,” as the 6’6” Argentine is nicknamed, was back in full power mode entering Flushing Meadows. On its hard courts, his favorite surface, he eliminated No. 31 seed Fernando Verdasco, No. 20 Borna Coric, and No. 11 John Isner to make the semis. There Nadal, who had outlasted No. 9 Thiem in a sensational five-set marathon, was forced to retire against Del Potro, when trailing 7-6, 6-2.
“Del Potro is playing the best he’s ever played,” asserted former No. 1 John McEnroe, an ESPN analyst, before the final.
Although heavily favored Djokovic had won 21 of his last 22 matches and led 14-4 in their head-to-head rivalry, including 10-3 on hard courts and 2-0 at the US Open, a few pundits, like Patrick McEnroe, another ESPN analyst, predicted an upset. Perhaps the cooler temperature, the closed roof, heavier balls, and partisan spectators, especially the many South Americans, would tilt the match in Delpo’s favor.
That best-case scenario seemed fanciful, though, as an eerily calm and supremely confident Djokovic easily took the opening set, 6-3. Technically perfect in every stroke, the 31-year-old veteran of 23 major finals, also boasted a huge edge in movement over the slow, less agile Del Potro—remember “He moves well for a big man” is a backhanded compliment.
Equally crucial was Djokovic’s serve return, the consensus greatest ever. An astounding 46% of Del Potro serves were not returned safely in his first six matches. After Djokovic broke Delpo’s serve to lead 2-1 in the second set, he had made an even more astounding 97% (39 of 42) of his serve returns. Djokovic’s blazing speed and defensive skills also defused, for the most part, Delpo’s explosive forehand.
Just when it looked like the second set would be as routine as the first—Djokovic had held serve for 23 straight games including his decisive semifinal victory over Kei Nishikori—Delpo broke serve to make it 3-all. The crowd erupted in cheers when Djokovic’s forehand sailed wide on Delpo’s third break point. The spectators energized Delpo and riled Djokovic a bit, but not enough as Djokovic escaped three break points in the 22-point eighth game.
The tiebreaker was, as it turned out, Delpo’s last stand. But his great weapon, a flat forehand that occasionally exceeded 100 mph, became his great liability, misfiring for five unforced errors. That essentially gave the tiebreaker to Djokovic, 7-4.
Even when the Argentine managed to get his first service break to trail by 3-2 in the third set, he looked exhausted as he leaned against the umpire’s chair when talking to Alison Hughes. “Djokovic is a fantastic athlete, and that quickness is wearing down Del Potro,” noted John McEnroe.
Not even the repeated chants of “Ole! Ole! Ole!” could revitalize the valiant Argentine or demoralize Djokovic. As he later explained, “My nickname is Nolé. When they shout ‘Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé,’ that’s what I hear. I actually make myself hear that. No word of a lie. I really do.”
In any event, Nole grabbed eight of the last 11 points, the last on a nonchalant overhead, for the 6-3, 7-6, 7-3 triumph and his third US Open title.
The champion then plopped down on his back, spreading his arms and legs, to celebrate. He sprang up and embraced Del Potro at the net. Then the gregarious Djokovic celebrated again with his trademark arm-lifting gesture toward the 23,000-plus spectators in all four sides of Arthur Ashe Stadium. He seemed happiest of all when he climbed into the stands to hug his family, friends, coaches, and trainers.
Meanwhile, Del Potro cried in his chair as his emotions swirled. Djokovic, one of the classiest winners in tennis history, saw him. He walked over and put his arms around the “gentle giant,” as he calls him, and placed his head against the head of his good friend.
“He treats others the way he wants others to treat him,” Djokovic said before the final. “I think that’s why people love him. He nurtures the right values in life. We all felt for his struggles with injuries, but he was always a top-five player in the eyes of everyone. Even when he dropped his ranking [to No. 1,041 in 2016], we all knew that he has a capacity to get where he is at the moment.”
Records in sight
History, both past and present, was also on Djokovic’s mind. He talked about his boyhood hero, whose 14 Grand Slam titles he matched on Sunday. “Pete Sampras is one of the biggest legends ever to play the game,” Djokovic said, “He was my childhood idol. He was someone I was looking up to. The first actual thing I saw related to tennis on the TV was his first or second Wimbledon championship. That inspired me to start playing tennis. There is a lot of significance of me being now shoulder to shoulder in terms of Grand Slam wins with him.”
Sampras won his last major at 31, Djokovic’s age, in 2002 on the same court. It was the last match the serving-and-volleying Californian ever played. But Djokovic, the only man to win two majors this year, has no plans to retire. Au contraire. With the 37-year-old Federer fading after his Australian Open triumph and the 32-year-old Nadal forced to retire with sore knees for the second time this year at a major, Djokovic can conceivably catch up to Nadal’s 17 majors and even Federer’s record 20.
The Australian Open starts in four months, and six-time titlist Djokovic rates as the clear favorite. As John McEnroe said, “You better believe this guy is going to win a few more majors.”