Novak Djokovic chokes in tears as Grand Slam dream dashed(AP)
Novak Djokovic chokes in tears as Grand Slam dream dashed(AP)

Novak Djokovic chokes in tears as Grand Slam dream dashed

  • As Djokovic sat on his chair at the changeover before what turned out to be the last game of the US Open final, he began sobbing almost uncontrollably, hiding his welled-up eyes under the white towel
By Rutvick Mehta
PUBLISHED ON SEP 14, 2021 08:15 AM IST

Novak Djokovic raised his fist and afforded a smile, a rare glimmer of emotion from him on the day so far. Then, out of nowhere, there was an outpouring of emotion.

As Djokovic sat on his chair at the changeover before what turned out to be the last game of the US Open final, he began sobbing almost uncontrollably, hiding his welled-up eyes under the white towel. The tears flowed even as he walked on court and paused to receive serve from Daniil Medvedev, who minutes later wrapped up a straight-sets victory.

In what was meant to be a defining match for the Serb that would place him on a mythical pedestal among other tennis immortals, it ended up being the defining image that proved—despite what he made us believe throughout the year—that he is human. The machine had glitched just a little; the steely mind had, for once, softened just a bit.

“So many different emotions,” Djokovic said after the final, explaining his mid-match tears. “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… that's the reason on the changeover I just teared up. The emotion, the energy was so strong.”

The world No. 1 was on the cusp of achieving what no man had done in 52 years: win all four Grand Slams in the same year. A record 21st Slam, moving clear of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, was to be an added bonus. As Djokovic stepped on the court to try and cross the line into history a huge roar greeted him at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, the kind he would have rarely heard before in his previous 30 Major finals.

TV commentators discussed how the women’s doubles final that preceded the match had to be paused briefly because fans were cheering wildly even during Djokovic’s pre-match practice session in the nearby court. People wanted to be part of history as well, and went all out in backing the man. Djokovic is not used to that. The Djoker has never been a fan favourite. Sure, there is respect and applause for him, but seldom unfiltered love and support. He invariably rides against the crowd, not with it, to win matches and Slams.

On Sunday, everyone was rooting for him, with chants of "Nole, Nole" and posters terming him the GOAT (greatest of all time).

For a better part of the 2021 season, the Calendar Slam was all Djokovic was asked about, and it was all he spoke about. The murmurs began with his usually dominant run in Australia, and grew like his legend in Paris after stunning Nadal in the semi-finals and overcoming a two-set deficit to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final. Someone dare stop him this year. Certainly not at Wimbledon, where he completed a hat-trick of titles. Three down, one to go. Throw in the Tokyo Olympics and an even more glorious Golden Slam storyline.

All along—unlike most record-chasers of the past—not only did Djokovic not shy away from speaking about it, he made it clear just how much he wanted it.

Thus, despite only a fortnight’s gap between the Wimbledon and the Olympics, Djokovic flew to Tokyo with the aim of becoming only the second player in history to complete the Golden Slam after Steffi Graf in 1988. It wasn’t to be, for an exhausted Djokovic lost to Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals.

Less than a month later, a partially recharged Djokovic landed in New York, talking history again. After every round win, it lingered. Even if Djokovic brought it up himself. Asked about going for a fourth US Open title in an on-court interview after his five-set semi-final victory over Zverev, Djokovic replied with a touch of sarcasm and laughter: “I'm going for a fourth US Open, that's all I'm thinking about”. He then went on to talk about how he would approach the final as if it was the last match of his career. “All in,” he said.

Yet, the fighter who revels in being pushed against the wall on the big occasions, stuttered to find that resolve in the final. Perhaps it was just the love from the crowd for a person used to being driven by barbs.

Save a dramatic bout of smashing his racquet several times in the fourth game of the second set—a period in which he had a few chances to break the unrelenting Medvedev serve—Djokovic was far from his animated self. There were no furious jibes at himself, no long glances at his box (a sign that he is locked in during a fight), no fiery celebrations after points that could stoke the comeback fire.

It also didn’t help that the 34-year-old had worked overtime compared to his 25-year-old rival heading into the final. Djokovic spent more than 17 hours on court across the six matches, with four consecutive matches in which he lost the first set. Medvedev, in contrast, had around 12 hours of game time, dropping just one set. And so, despite coming out with a different tactical approach to unsettle the baseline solidity of Medvedev—serve and volleys, rushing to the net (47 times), shortening rallies—Djokovic simply couldn’t push his tired legs and tired mind.

“… was emotionally very demanding period for me in the last five, six months,” Djokovic said. “Slams and Olympics and playing at home in Belgrade. Everything was coming together for me here and kind of accumulating all the emotions that I've been through.”

It explains why the Calendar Slam is such a rare phenomenon. Only five players have ever done it; the last male to do so was Rod Laver in 1969 and the last female was Graf in 1988. Djokovic—who has held the four Slams at once but not in the same year—joins a club that has the likes of Jack Crawford (1933) and Lew Hoad (1956) to have lost in the season’s final Slam after winning the rest. The closest anyone got to it before Djokovic was in 2015, when Serena Williams endured a shock semi-final defeat to Roberta Vinci at the US Open in her quest to enter the premier club.

Before his final, Djokovic revealed having spoken to Williams about being in the situation; how the pressure gets drastically different as it gets closer. Having gone through it himself now, the 20-time Grand Slam winner is happy that his history-chasing days are history. For now, at least.

“Relief,” Djokovic said. “I was glad it was over because the build-up for this tournament and everything that mentally, emotionally I had to deal with throughout in the last couple of weeks was just a lot. It was a lot to handle. I was just glad that finally the run is over.”

A run in which he stumbled at the very last step after winning 27 consecutive matches in Slams out of a possible 28 in a single year.

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