NEW YORK — A game from the end of his bid for what would have been the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men’s tennis since 1969, Novak Djokovic covered his face with a towel, hiding tears during a changeover.
For 27 Grand Slam matches in 2021, on hardcourts, claycourts and grass, Djokovic could not be beaten. Needing one more victory, in the U.S. Open final Sunday against Daniil Medvedev, to complete a season sweep of major titles and claim a men’s-record 21st major title, Djokovic could not come through.
Outplayed by someone using a similar style to his, Djokovic lost 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to first-time major champion Medvedev.
What was in Djokovic’s thoughts as he sat on the sideline, knowing his quest was moments from its conclusion?
“Relief. 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 … a lot to handle,” he said.
“I was just glad that, finally, the run is over. At the same time, I felt sadness, disappointment, and also gratitude for the crowd and for that special moment that they’ve created for me on the court.”
Djokovic, ranked No. 1, won the Australian Open in February, beating Medvedev in the final in straight sets; the French Open in June; and Wimbledon in July. He pulled even with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at 20 Grand Slam titles, the most for a man in the sport’s history.
The last man to go 4-for-4 at the majors in one season remains Rod Laver, who did it twice — in 1962 and 1969 — and was in the stands Sunday. The last woman to accomplish the feat was Steffi Graf in 1988.
Instead, Djokovic joins Jack Crawford in 1933 and Lew Hoad in 1956 as men who won a year’s first three majors and made it to the U.S. Open final before losing.
“I do feel sorry for Novak, because I cannot imagine what he feels,” said Medvedev, a 25-year-old from Russia who had been 0-2 in major finals. “Knowing that I managed to stop him, it definitely makes it sweeter, and brings me confidence for what is to come.”
Djokovic, a 34-year-old from Serbia, simply was far from his best on this day. “Just energy-wise, I felt slow,” said Djokovic, who could not create the kind of comeback he had in each of his previous four matches — and six others in Grand Slam action this year — after he dropped the opening set. “I know I could have, and should have, done better.”
Djokovic made 38 unforced errors in all. He wasn’t able to convert a break chance until it was too little, too late, going 1-for-6. He showed frustration, too, destroying his racket by pounding it three times against the court after one point, drawing boos from the crowd of 25,703 and a code violation from chair umpire Damien Dumusois.
A lot of Djokovic’s issues also had to do with Medvedev, ranked No. 2, who used his 6-foot-6 frame to chase down everything and respond with seemingly effortless groundstrokes — much the way Djokovic wears down foes — and delivered pinpoint serving.
“He absolutely was the better player and deserved to win, no doubt about it,” Djokovic said.
Medvedev lost only one set in the tournament and never allowed Djokovic to get into the final. He won 20 of his first 23 service points, establishing a pattern. He finished with 16 aces and 38 winners in all, 11 more than Djokovic.
“I had a clear plan, which did seem to work,” Medvedev said. “Was (Djokovic) at his best? Maybe not. He had a lot of pressure. I had a lot of pressure, too.”
Nerves, distracting noise from spectators and cramps that started in his legs got to Medvedev at the end. He served for the match at 5-2 and was a point from winning before double-faulting twice in a row. At 5-4, he had a second match point and double-faulted again. On the next chance, though, a 129 mph service winner finally finished the job, and Medvedev toppled to the court on his left side with his tongue hanging out, which he said was inspired by the “dead fish celebration” for a goal in a soccer video game.
He said he thought of the idea at Wimbledon. When he told other players who also play the video game, they told him they thought it was “legendary.”
“That’s how I wanted to make it,” he said.
At the trophy presentation, Medvedev praised Djokovic for all his accomplishments: “I never said this to anybody, but I’ll say it right now: For me, you are the greatest tennis player in history.”