Serbia's Novak Djokovic (above) reacts after capturing the second set of Monday's U.S. Open men's singles final against Rafael Nadal. (AP)
It was gut-check time for Novak Djokovic.
Already down two sets to one, the 23-year-old Serb found himself behind an early break in the fourth, staring down elimination against a dogged opponent in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
That was 14 days ago.
Of course, he’d escape with a 6-3, 3-6, 2-6, 7-5, 6-3 victory over Viktor Troicki, a first-round scare that nearly aborted Djokovic’s career-defining tournament before it could really begin. More important, he was able to defeat the elements: defying the triple-digit temperatures widely thought to be his Kryptonite long enough for a blanket of late-afternoon shade to arrive over Ashe. “It was like a sleeping-with-my-girlfriend kind of feeling,” Djokovic quipped afterward during the on-court interview, an impromptu remark that became the tournament’s most-replayed sound bite.
Djokovic entered this year’s U.S. Open a somewhat forgotten presence, termed as “under the radar” by pundits and fans as late as the quarterfinals. He crept quietly through the draw after surviving Troicki -- clinically dispensing of Philipp Petzschner, James Blake, Mardy Fish and Gael Monfils (the latter three crowd favorites) in straight sets -- and turned in the match of his life Saturday with a cathartic five-set triumph over Roger Federer. “It turned everything in my favor,” said Djokovic of the Troicki win. “[After the first round] I was playing great tennis all the way, even in tonight’s match.”
Two weeks later, he leaves this year’s U.S. Open a permanently changed player. The book on Djokovic had always been indisputable talent with glaring questions about stamina and guts, particularly in extreme weather conditions. (The 2008 Australian Open champion, he famously quit on his stool during his '09 defense when the heat became unbearable.) For years, the third seed was tennis’ third man, best-known as a capable foil for the greatness of Federer and Nadal. It’s time to reconsider. He leaves Queens with the No. 2 ranking (having overtaken Federer with Saturday’s scalp) and, likely, a place opposite Rafa in the premier tennis rivalry of the nascent decade. The Troicki and Federer wins improved his career record in five-set matches to 12-5 -- and both should put to rest any lingering questions regarding his nerve.
As should Monday's final.
Less than 48 hours after the physically and emotionally taxing victory over Federer, Djokovic met Nadal in a just-as-grueling match for the title. For 3 hours and 43 minutes -- just one minute less than Saturday's marathon -- Nadal punished Djokovic with a never-been-better serve and flat, angled groundstrokes, pushing him along the baseline like a frantic Pong paddle. But Djokovic wouldn’t give. After earning a rare break of Nadal in the final game of the second to level the match at one set apiece, he pumped his fist and sounded a barbaric yawp. Even the sizable contingent of Nadal supporters had little choice but to applaud his valor. In the CBS-turned-ESPN2 booth, John McEnroe dropped enough boxing metaphors to owe A.J. Liebling's family royalties.
Fatigue began to catch up with the Serb in the third, but he seemed to deliver his finest play with his back up against it -- another direct counter to the Djokovic myth. Remarkably, he saved 10 of 11 break points in that set before an awestruck Ashe crowd, but fell 6-4. “In order to win against him tonight, I had to be on the top of my game,” he said. “I was playing really well for most of the match, but then there were some moments in the third and fourth set where I dropped my focus a little bit. I dropped the level of my game and just a little bit on service games.
“He took it away, and he never gave me a chance to go back.”
Even when defeat became inevitable late in the fourth, Djokovic played to the crowd and frequently raised his hands in good-hearted resignation at Rafa's brilliance. As Nadal closed in on history, with a dazzling array of line-painting winners and passing shots that seemed to cheat space-time, Djokovic remained positive. When Rafa laced a forehand that kissed the baseline to give him match point, Djokovic's incredulous expression (followed by a toothy grin) mirrored the crowd's emotions. As Nadal raised the trophy following the 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 victory, it was Djokovic who held the winner's check for him ... again, with a smile. A long way back for a player who was pilloried by the New York crowd just two years ago for belaboring a feud with Andy Roddick.
In 2010, Djokovic reached the quarterfinals or better at each of the four majors -- but the first three weren't nearly as transformative as the last.
“I wanted that trophy and I know I gave my maximum to get it,” Djokovic said. “But when I sleep over the night, tomorrow I will wake up as a new man.” Too late, Novak. It’s already happened.