• There was a moment in his U.S. Open quarterfinal defeat to Novak Djokovic in which John Millman pushed the favorite and sparked thoughts of a second monumental upset. But Djokovic's talent won out, ending Millman's unlikely run.
By S.L. Price
September 06, 2018

NEW YORK – There was only one small moment, just before 11 p.m. Wednesday, when the belief began to rise. Really, we all knew better: In pro tennis, lightning never strikes twice. The revolution never lasts more than a day. Every player, always, sinks or rises back to their proper level.

Still, the moment came Wednesday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium and there was no ignoring it. On serve in the second set with the momentum edging his way, career journeyman John Millman had just outhit, outendured, out-Novaked Novak Djokovic in a sapping 27-stroke rally, that there, for all the world to see, buckled the knees of the reigning Wimbledon champ, 13-time Grand Slam winner and world No. 2. Only Djokovic’s left hand, and the head of his racket, prevented a full-on faceplant. Djokovic barely heard the stunned roar of 23,771, drowned out as it was by his own gasping.

“I was just thinking, 'How long does it take me to get to the towel?'” Djokovic said after, “and whether I can get enough air for the next one, next point.”

Of course you couldn’t help, then, but flash back 36 hours to early Tuesday morning, when the 55th-ranked Millman, a 29-year-old son of Brisbane, Australia, knocked Roger Federer out of the 2018 U.S. Open in one of the great upsets in tennis history. Or be impressed that, though even Millman’s mother described to Aussie TV his pre-Open mentality as muddled (“His head was a bit of a cabbage,” she said), Millman’s head seemed decidedly un-cabbage-y in the aftermath.

“Hopefully I haven’t got a bullet in me yet,” Millman said as folks back home, and at Flushing Meadow, began processing the Federer win as once-in-a-lifetime, “and I can create a few more moments in my career.”

But not Wednesday, not to that extreme. In a match that, with both men pulverizing two-hand backhands and blanketing all corners of the court, looked oddly reflective, Djokovic indeed recovered his breath and, at 4-all, imposed his implacable will. After fending off 12 straight break points, Millman finally double-faulted with two uncharacteristic bombs down the T; Djokovic served out the pivotal second, and then raised his level enough to nail down the soggy, anything-but-routine quarterfinal, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. He then walked off the court raving about Millman’s “hardworking ethics."

“I really have respect for him,” Djokovic said. “I thought his kind of respect and mindset even before match against Roger, match against me today, he showed respect to us, but he said, 'I’m going to go out and I’m going to play. I’m not gonna play, you know, to satisfy the crowd and make it a nice-looking match. I just want to win.'

“Credit to him for saying that and coming out and really backing that up with a performance. I mean, he’s a great fighter. He has probably had the tournament of his life and match of his life against Roger. He made me run and he made me earn my match today, earn my win.”

Djokovic didn’t mention Nick Kyrgios, then, and the second half of his post-match press conference soon turned to his opponent in the semifinals, Kei Nishikori, winner of Wednesday’s five-set undercard over Marin Cilic.

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“In a day or two time, I will be yesterday’s news,” Millman said. “There’s going to be a champion of this tournament and they should be the story.”

True. And not only will there be a winner, but the game will also return to obsessing over its transcendent greats, its Federers and Serenas and Rafas et al, as well as the cadre of younger players like Alexander Zverev, Frances Tiafoe and Denis Shapavalov–not to mention Grigor “Baby Federer” Dimitrov–who seem gifted enough to replace them. A player like Millman, with a past–both recent and long–marked by injury and challenger stops and a career 0-10 record against top-10 players before Federer, seems destined to fade into the background, his notch-below skills and sheer professionalism no match for, say, the ever-disappointing puzzle of Kyrgios.  

Indeed, before sending Millman off to get lumped, forever, with one-hit giant killers like George Bastl and Lukas Rosol, it’s important to consider just why his upset resonated Down Under–and why the crowd so roared for him near the end of the first set, when Millman battled and scrambled and even grinned as he pushed Djokovic to his limit. This was the same tournament, remember, when the sport’s talent-lust took one of its most unseemly turns, when Kyrgios was so uncompetitive during his second-round match in New York that the chair umpire abandoned his seat to beg him to play harder.

"I want to help you,” Mohamed Lahyani was heard telling Kyrgios, 23, during a changeover after Millman’s compatriot seemed–yet again–to be tanking. "I've seen your matches: you're great for tennis. … I know this is not you."

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No one would ever say that to Millman. Though it seems absurd to say this about one of the elite tennis players on the planet, he is not only not considered a genius on the order of Federer or extraordinarily gifted like Kyrgios; Millman is barely called talented at all. In tennis-speak, the hands or feel or mind of a “talent” are spoken of–by coaches, peers and former greats–with awe. Millman, on the other hand, is a plugger, a grinder, and though the highest order of such–Ivan Lendl, Jim Courier, Michael Chang–can compile Hall of Fame credentials, no one has ever described their respective games as a “creative” or a “religious experience.”

No, a grinder is respected but rarely adored, because what he or she does is too comprehensible, too quotidian. Few people, even in tennis, understand how Federer, like Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe before him, creates what he does on court. But everybody in Ashe Stadium, Monday and Wednesday, understood John Millman start to finish.

“Obviously he’s not someone that you would say, ‘Wow, what a talent….’,  but he has clearly the most important things,” says Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’s coach and founder of the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in Nice, France. “He’s an incredible fighter; he’s a very hard worker, so he also developed the ability to put a lot of balls back in play without missing. He’s incredible physically, so he’s moving very well. He’s never tired, because he’s worked so hard.

“Not everyone can be No. 1 in the world–that’s true. But I think in life the greatest thing is to be able to tell yourself at the end of your career: ‘I have zero regret. I gave everything and made use of all my potential.’ That’s what I think of Millman.”

Mouratoglou even takes it a step further. Though he coaches a supreme physical talent in Williams, he believes that it’s actually her grinder qualities–still there, at 36, for all to see in tonight’s U.S. Open semifinal against Anastasija Sevastova–that make her extraordinary. Same goes for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

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“Serena’s level of expectation is incredibly high, much higher than anyone’s, but it touches everything, every part of her life, and at practice she expects that level and she’s not going to accept to be under that,” Mouratoglou said. “When she’s not happy with her match she’ll come back to the court and play for two hours until she gets done what she wants. When she’s playing a match she really refuses to lose, and that’s why she’s able to bring this X-factor that makes her win when she’s in trouble. She’s never satisfied. It’s never enough.”

Millman knows that feeling, even if he’ll never feel anything close to the same result. Wednesday night, as Djokovic’s match-winning shot was still rolling, Millman hopped to the net and leaned in. He whipped off his hat–in seeming courtesy–and he and Djokovic embraced. Then Millman gathered his bag and rackets, quickly, and twice made a point of looking high into the emptying stands, the biggest crowd to ever see him work.

“Take a few snapshots in your head, and feed off it down the track,” Millman explained later. “You know, I have retired in my head maybe a few times throughout my career when things got pretty tough with my body and stuff. It’s those moments, playing on center court at Ashe, that makes all that toil worthwhile. If times get tough down the track, hopefully I can think back to that moment.”

Hopefully, he won’t be the only one.

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