>>Christopher Clarey, The New York Times
Published: 2018-09-10 09:54:30 BdST
On his last visit to American hard courts, in March, Novak Djokovic looked like a man in a dinghy without a motor or a sail, losing his opening-round matches in Indian Wells, California and Miami.
But that confounding trip, part of a malaise that lasted nearly two years, is now part of the past.
After returning to the fore by winning Wimbledon in July, he returned to dominance by winning the US Open for the third time on Sunday night.
His 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory over Juan Martín del Potro under a closed roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium was a brilliant display of Djokovic’s suffocating skill set.
It was all there: the precision serving, the fast-twitch returns, the baseline consistency under greatest pressure, and, above all, the full-stretch defense that can buckle the knees and spirit of even a player as resilient as del Potro.
“He was back at his best,” said his coach, Marian Vajda, who helped Djokovic back to that level after he rejoined his team in April, helped to retool his serve and restored his confidence.
Sept 9, 2018; New York, NY, USA; Novak Djokovic of Serbia kisses the US Open trophy after beating Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina in the men's final on day fourteen of the 2018 US Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Roger Federer has 20. Rafael Nadal has 17. One more Grand Slam victory, which hardly seems out of the question at next year’s Australian Open in light of Djokovic’s affinity for hard courts in Melbourne, and the top three players from this golden era of men’s tennis will hold the top three spots on that career list.
“I mean, the 14 is a number,” Vajda said, looking up at the ceiling of the players’ lounge as if he were admiring the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. “Years ago, I would say Rafa and Roger went too far from him, too ahead of him with the Grand Slams, and now I have the feeling, he catches up with them.”
For now, Djokovic has at least caught Sampras, the big-serving Californian with the fabulous running forehand. Sampras has more in common stylistically with Federer than with Djokovic and his two-handed backhand and his ability to turn defence into offense. But Djokovic said Sampras was his childhood idol.
“He was someone I was looking up to,” Djokovic said. “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.”
To achieve that, he had to deny a player who had endured a long wait to be back on this stage. The last time del Potro played the final in New York, Ashe Stadium did not have a roof and Barack Obama was still in the first year of his presidency.
That was in September 2009, and del Potro swept past Nadal in the semifinals and rallied to beat Federer in the final.
The tennis world was at his big feet and forehand. He was just 20. But four wrist operations stopped his rise and left him contemplating retirement in 2015. He is in the midst of a fine season and was a clear crowd favourite as the Argentine fans and others familiar with his backstory threw their support behind him from the start.
Sept 9, 2018; New York, NY, USA; Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina hits to Novak Djokovic of Serbia in the men's final on day fourteen of the 2018 US Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters
This time he transformed the Argentine fans’ cheers for del Potro.
“My nickname is Nole,” Djokovic said. “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.”
It is difficult, even for a player as powerful as del Potro, to knock down a wall, and that was often what Djokovic resembled on the gritty blue surface. Then again, that metaphor has its limits because walls do not run. Djokovic seemed to be everywhere at times: extending rallies or finishing them off with winners, often in the forecourt.
He pushed forward often, winning 28 of 37 points at net. But the best duel of the night was Djokovic’s world-class defence against del Potro’s world-class forehand, which remains one of the game’s ultimate crowd pleasers.
The actress Meryl Streep was not acting when she put her hands to her face, looking like something Edvard Munch might have painted, after one particularly thunderous del Potro winner.
But more often than not, Djokovic managed to retrieve del Potro’s signature shot and maintain the suspense and the frustration.
Djokovic has won five straight matches against del Potro, the last four of those victories coming in straight sets. He is 15-4 against him overall.
This meeting, their first in a Grand Slam final, turned for good in the second-set tiebreaker, when Djokovic broke a 4-4 deadlock by winning the final three points.
The last point of that tiebreaker was emblematic: Del Potro tried to open up the court with his forehand, but Djokovic read the shot beautifully and counterpunched it crosscourt. Del Potro, who at 6-foot-6 takes time to change direction, reached the ball but hit the running forehand into the net.
It takes great energy and resilience to play Djokovic’s style of tennis, but his eyes were often wide amid the tussle, enjoying the process again after the burnout and injuries that knocked him off the top rung in men’s tennis after he last reached the final here in 2016.
This year, he had surgery to repair a right elbow problem in early February after playing the Australian Open with a sheath on his right arm and an abbreviated service motion.
But the sheath is long gone, along with his slump.
“When I had the surgery on my elbow earlier this year, I could truly understand what Juan Martín was going through with his surgeries,” Djokovic, 31, said in the postmatch awards ceremony Sunday as del Potro looked on. “But you learn from adversity. You learn when you’re down and when you have doubtful moments, when things are not working out as you want them to. I try to take the best out of myself in those moments and thrive on the support and love I get from close ones to get myself in this position.”
He and those close to him, including his wife, Jelena, were locked in a group embrace in the stands shortly after he closed out the match with an overhead, one of his least reliable shots.
He will be back at No. 3 in the rankings Monday, and though Nadal will still be No. 1 and Federer No. 2, there is no doubt about which player is atop the heap right here, right now.
© 2018 New York Times News Service