FLUSHING MEADOWS – In the final match of the 2021 U.S. Open, history was denied. Novak Djokovic came in to Sunday’s championship hoping to pull off a once-in-a-generation feat. More than 20,000 fans filled Arthur Ashe Stadium to witness it. There was plenty of disappointment to go around.
In his 28th match at a major this year, one short of pulling off the calendar Grand Slam, which hadn't been executed since 1988, the 34-year-old Djokovic fell short. Or rather, he fell tall. The opponent on the other side of the net, Daniil Medvedev of Russia, played the match of his life, took advantage his opponent’s sluggishness, confounded Djokovic with his reach, his backhand and his serve, and thwarted history, winning 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. The 25-year-old Medvedev has been to the U.S. Open final before and was the second seed. And yet this felt like a titanic upset.
"First of all I want to say sorry for you fans and Novak. We all know what he was going for today," Medvedev said during the on-court trophy ceremony. "I've never said this to anybody, but I will say it right now. For me, you are the greatest tennis player in history."
Plenty will be made of Djokovic failing to close this out. But first, let's give credit to Medvedev. Playing in his third major final—he lost to Nadal here in 2019 and lost to Djokovic at the Australian Open in February—Medvedev played near flawless tennis. Though he stands 6’7”, his best asset might be his movement. He covered the court brilliantly, anticipated his opponent, served well and effectively out Djokovic-ed Djokovic. He got early breaks in each of the three sets and was able to close them out without much drama. One of critical point came midway through the second set when Djokovic cracked his racket. It was just the kind of friction-generator that has served him well in the past. But this time nothing came of it. Medvedev broke, held and closed out the second set. And by the time he got up an early break in the third, it was all but a fait accompli.
Djokovic was not at his best today. Part of that was surely the occasion, but part of that may have been cumulative. He had played more than five hours more tennis than Medvedev—17 hours, 26 minutes versus 11 hours and 51 minutes coming into this match—and the collective fatigue seemed obvious. Djokovic will be profoundly disappointed. To his credit, he said he would play this match as if it were the last match of his career. He's been realistic about this moment in history. He may not get it again, but today he just didn't have it.
As such, he remains tied with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer with 20 career majors, and we'll have to wait until 2022 to see someone surge ahead in the GOAT race. It was a strange ending to a captivating tournament. Despite the absence of major stars from the standpoint of competitive matches, unexpected results and endearing, emerging players, it was an unrivaled U.S. Open. But to the disappointment of the fans who came to witness Djokovic’s extraordinary quest, the tournament couldn't close with history.
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