With History Hanging In The Balance, Djokovic Is Thriving On US Open Pressure

Novak Djokovic (photo: Garrett Ellwood/USTA)

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON, September 7, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

As tennis history hangs in the balance, and with Novak Djokovic chasing after a calendar-year Grand Slam being the guiding focus of his fortune, the 20-time major champion has spent this US Open fortnight trying to find love and balance.

Through the first four rounds of this year’s final major, the world’s top player has embraced the pressure of the occasion – even if he hasn’t always had the full support of the New York City tennis fans cheering for him. He has scored victories against Danish teen qualifier Holger Rune, unheralded Tallon Griekspoor of the Netherlands, Japan’s samurai warrior Kei Nishikori and upstart American wild card Jenson Brooksby – all on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the biggest tennis stadium on planet Earth – to improve his lifetime US Open record to 79-12.

While there have been a few magnified wobbles along the way, which have challenged the Serbian’s mental composure, the World No. 1 has harnessed his stubbornness by utilizing his physical abilities on the court to excel. They include: his unabating defense, his phenomenal service return, his extraordinary stamina and his determination to succeed. While New York City loves cheering for an underdog, by the end of each match fans have also shown their appreciation for Djokovic – if not always their unabashed love like they seem to do for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Since losing the Rome final to Nadal in May, Djokovic has been nearly perfect, winning consecutive titles on clay in Belgrade and at Roland Garros, then following it up with his sixth Wimbledon crown on grass. Although a chance at a Golden Slam disappeared in July when he lost to eventual gold medalist Alexander Zverev in the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympic Games tournament, the Serbian has regrouped very nicely in New York the past two weeks by playing solidly round after round regardless of the opponent.

Among his contemporaries, Andy Murray appreciates the hard work and dedication that Djokovic has put in to becoming the best men’s tennis player in the world.

“If you look at his game over the years, the things he’s improved — he has turned himself into a complete player,” Murray said during a recent US Open press conference. “He plays great on all surfaces. He has an underrated serve. He’s the best returner of all time.”

Now, as Djokovic readies to face No. 6 seed Matteo Berrettini of Italy in Wednesday’s quarterfinal round, he needs just three more victories to attain his 21st major singles title, which would break his tie with Federer and Nadal for the most in men’s history. If the tournament seeds hold, Djokovic could face No. 4  Zverev in Friday’s semifinals and No. 2 Daniil Medvedev in Sunday’s title match. By winning this year’s US Open, he would become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam.

“Novak’s fitness used to be a weakness,” Andy Roddick, the last American man to win the US Open (in 2003) wrote on Twitter in praise of Djokovic. “One of the best examples in sports history of turning a negative into a positive. He’s a beast.”

After spotting the first set to the 20-year-old Brooksby Monday evening, Djokovic rallied to win in four sets, 1-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2. He won 15 of the final 20 games to earn his 25th consecutive Grand Slam victory of 2021.

During his post-match interview on court with ESPN‘s Brad Gilbert, another of Roddick’s tweets – “First he takes your legs … then he takes your soul” – was brought to Djokovic’s attention.

The 34-year-old top seed paused to think about what Roddick tweeted. Then, with a smile on his face, he thoughtfully responded to Gilbert:

“Only the first part. The second part, I don’t take anybody’s soul. Everyone has their soul, we’re all beautiful souls, so I appreciate everyone. … But I’ll take your legs out, that’s for sure!”

Djokovic read the mood of the audience perfectly, and his response drew laughter from the full house at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

During the on-court interview, Djokovic made sure to praise his younger opponent, whom he had just beaten: “Brooksby is a very young, very talented player. I told him at the net that a very bright future is ahead of him. Definitely he’s a great player.”

Later, during his press conference, Djokovic was in a reflective mood.

“It’s different stepping out on the court first time against someone that really has nothing to lose,” he said. “He’s a young, talented player that is very crafty. He’s got the really all-around game. He was pumped. He had the crowd behind him, of course. He played a perfect first set. Everything he intended to do he executed it perfectly.

“On my end, I was just trying to find a rhythm, trying to read his game, trying to understand where I can find holes in his game and start to attack and shift the momentum to my side.

“That happened already at the beginning of the second set. I broke him early. He broke back. But I re-broke his serve right away. We had some very, very long rallies, long games. It took a toll physically I think on both of us at that point. But I managed to find the right serves. I served efficiently when I needed to, opening up the court.

“The third and fourth set were really, really good from my side. I felt I was more dominant. I decreased the unforced errors that were really high in the first part of the match. I just was kind of swinging through the ball better.

“Was a good finish. It wasn’t a good start. But all in all, expected the battle, and I got that one. I’m pleased to overcome it.”

As Djokovic gets closer to making history, he was asked by a reporter Monday evening what he recalled of his first match in a major – at the 2005 Australian Open – against Russia’s Marat Safin.

“I do recall one of the most profound memories of Australian Open 2005 when I qualified and played Safin night session, the center court, is that I was getting a haircut earlier that day. Wonderful lady, a hairdresser, asked me, ‘Do you want to do something special for tonight?’

“I said, ‘What are you suggesting?’

“She said, ‘Maybe we should color your front part.’

“I’ve never done that in my life. So I said, ‘You know what? Why not?’

“I was 17, 18 years old. If I’m going to come out on the stage, I might as well do it with style.

“It wasn’t really very satisfying for my mother to see that. The conversation we had after was not great for me. But we had a good laugh about it.

“That seems like ages ago, and it is. I mean, it’s been now 16 years since my first center court Grand Slam match, first official main draw match. It’s been a while.

“But what a great ride. I mean, it’s difficult to reflect on everything while you’re still, say, in the bus and you’re still riding. It’s kind of hard. People tend to ask me, ‘How does it feel? Do you comprehend what you’ve done? Do you think about the whole journey?’

“Of course, I do. But tennis is such a sport that really you have to turn the next page the next day. You’re done with this tournament. What’s the next one? What’s the next challenge? What’s the next goal you need to achieve? Where are you heading?

“You don’t have much time really and energy to reflect on everything that you’ve been through. But I try to be grateful about it. Of course, I appreciate every single step in the journey.

“One day, of course, when I don’t play professional tennis anymore, I probably will have a little bit of a larger perspective on things and understand what I’ve been through a little bit better.”