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The second set—one hour and 44 minutes long—was one of the most hard-fought in Grand Slam final history.
Published Sep 11, 2023
NEW YORK— “Novak, when he loses, he’s never the same after,” Daniil Medvedev said before his final-round encounter with Novak Djokovic at the US Open. “He’s different. It’s just a different mentality.”
Medvedev was referring to the fact that he had beaten Djokovic the last time they played in a US Open final, in 2021. And he was assuming— correctly, we would discover—that he wouldn’t see the same Serb on the other side of the net this time.
“He’s going to be 10 times better than he was that day,” Medvedev said. “And I have to be, if I want to beat him, 10 times better than I was that day.”
If anything, Medvedev underestimated Djokovic. On Sunday, he put on a performance that was 180 degrees from how he played in 2021. In that final, exhausted by two weeks of tough matches, as well as his chase for a calendar-year Grand Slam, he lost in uncharacteristically lackluster fashion. In this final, Djokovic was again exhausted. But each time he seemed to be on the verge of collapse, he found a solution.
Djokovic’s 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 win was really all about the second set. In the opener, Medvedev started nervously and Djokovic took advantage with a quick early break. In the final set, the momentum was all with Djokovic. As his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, said, it was “just a question of how fast” it was going to be before he closed it out.
But the second set was one of the most hard-fought in Grand Slam final history. It lasted for an hour and 44 minutes, and featured rallies that were as thrilling for the fans as they were debilitating for the players.
Twenty, 25, 30 shots they went. Some were corner to corner slugfests; others took both guys up to the net and back again. Djokovic stole one of them by taking a Medvedev overhead and blocking a forehand passing shot by him. Medvedev stole one by taking a very good Djokovic drop shot and returning it with a better one. The crowd ate it up, capping off two weeks of thunderous roars with some of the loudest of the tournament, for both men. Medvedev described the tennis in the second set as “arm wrestling.”
As it progressed, Medvedev slowly gained the upper hand in that wrestling match. After the long rallies, Djokovic was more winded. He finished one on his back, another doubled over, another fully red in the face. Each time, he followed the long point by playing an intentionally quick one, either by serving and volleying or drilling the first forehand he saw. Serving at 3-4, Djokovic was gassed enough to double fault twice into the net, and give Medvedev a break point.
“I felt like I was, let’s call it, all over him,” Medvedev said. “Like I was dominating in a way.”
When Medvedev reached break point at 3-4, and Djokovic walked slowly to the service line, it was easy to imagine the set rapidly going the Russian’s way, and Djokovic needing to have his traditional talk with the man in the mirror in the locker room. Djokovic hit his serve wide and followed it in. Medvedev cracked a backhand return that looked sure to win him the point—until Djokovic reached out and angled it away for an even better half-volley winner.
“I think he was probably a better player in the second set,” Djokovic said. “He deserved to win that set more than I did. When it mattered I put one more ball into play than he did, and that was enough.”
Four games later, serving at 5-6, the match came to the moment that mattered most. Again, Djokovic was serving. Again, he was tired. Again, he double faulted twice. Again, he faced a break point, which was also a set point. Again, he served and volleyed. This time Medvedev had a good look at a backhand pass. The down the line was open, but he chose to go crosscourt. Djokovic was waiting there to reflex a volley into the open court for a set-saving winner.
“Should have won it,” Medvedev said of the second set, “but sometimes tennis is not that easy. Passing shot for sure down the line, not cross, but I have two choices and I chose the wrong one.”
The final peaked in the second-set tiebreaker. At 4-4, they played one of the points of the match, with the crowd’s collective scream rising louder with each swing, until Medvedev finally won it with a perfect drop shot.
But it was what Djokovic did next that won him the title. Even after losing a point where he was scrambling all over the court, he came right back and hit a series of savage crosscourt backhands that Medvedev finally couldn’t handle, to level the score at 5-5. All at once, Djokovic had gotten his second wind, and taken the wind out of Medvedev sails. In the end, it was Medvedev who capitulated, putting a tired backhand into the net to give Djokovic the set.
“In the second, I felt like I was losing air on so many occasions, and my legs as well,” Djokovic said. “I don’t recall being so exhausted after rallies, really, as I have been in the second set.”
“So I was very relieved to win [it].”
Djokovic has always been known as a clinician on court. He has always won with a ruthless efficiency from the baseline. In this match, though, he had to take on the role of the tactician. He couldn’t out-rally Medvedev, so he needed to pick and choose his moments to try to end points quickly, which meant doing something that never came naturally to him in the past: serve and volley. Djokovic did it exceedingly well tonight, winning 37 of 44 points there. His volley has never looked so crisp and assured.
He also had help from Medvedev, who barely budged from his service-return position 20 feet behind the baseline. This time even he admitted that he stuck with it for too long.
“Was a little bit stubborn on return,” Medvedev said. “I probably should have changed my position and stuff like this, but I had the feeling that it's gonna work…When the set was over, I was like, yeah, I was too stubborn, I should have done differently.”
Since 2011, Djokovic has had half a dozen historically good seasons, and 2023 was another. At 36, he won three of four majors, and came one match shy of the Grand Slam for the second time in three years. In a year that seemed to belong to Carlos Alcaraz, the big stages still belonged to Djokovic. And he closed it with with one of the most impressive tactical and physical victories of his career.
What will drive Djokovic on in the future, when he has smashed every record in the game? Tonight it was seeing his six-year-old daughter, Tara, in the front row.
“I didn’t know that she’s gonna be seated there,” he said. “Then when I got to the court, I saw her. When I was going through the very stressful moments, particularly in the second set when I needed a little bit of a push, of strength, of just lightness, I guess, she gave me a smile, a fist pump.”
No matter how much he’s won, moments like those seem like a pretty good reason to keep trying for more.