Steeped in heat, stewed in humidity, spiced by an array of upsets and shaken by a chaotic women’s final that produced a new and deserving champion, an eventful U.S. Open ended on Sunday with a heartening display of gritty tennis and good sportsmanship.
Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro were friends long before each suffered significant injuries. Djokovic experienced two years of pain before he missed six months’ competition and underwent elbow surgery early this year; del Potro required four procedures to repair his wrists and, as recently as 2015, was depressed and fearful about his tennis future. Their misfortunes bonded them and provided a touching backdrop to their embrace at the net Sunday.
Djokovic, patient and strong through two punishing weeks, became a three-time U.S. Open winner and 14-time Grand Slam champion with his 6-3, 7-6 (4) 6-3 victory over del Potro under the roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium. Djokovic is tied for third with Pete Sampras for the most career Grand Slam singles titles, behind Roger Federer (20) and Rafael Nadal (17). “I feel like I’m on a whole new level. That’s kind of my approach and my thinking,” said Djokovic, who missed last year’s U.S Open because of his elbow. “I just want to create from this moment onwards the most I can create for myself, to get the best out of myself in every possible moment.”
After he had won his 16th straight set and 21st of 23 here, Djokovic dropped to the court on his back, his arms and legs outstretched as he soaked in the applause and the moment. When he rose and met del Potro at the net they embraced for several seconds as their joy and disappointment mingled. “I'm very sad for being a loser today. But Novak deserved to take the trophy. He played a great match, very smart game,” said del Potro, who was again supported by the chants and cheers of the childhood friends who followed him here from his hometown of Tandil, Argentina.
“I had my opportunities during second and third set,” said del Potro, who played in his first Grand Slam final since he won here in 2009, “but I was playing almost at the limit all the time, looking for winners with my forehands, backhands, and I couldn't make it because Novak was there every time. He's a great champion. So I'm glad for him.”
The pivotal moment that propelled Djokovic closer to the title and the $3.8 million winner’s check was the eighth game of the second set. They battled for more than 20 minutes and went to deuce eight times. Del Potro had three break points to go up 5-3 but fell short when he produced a couple of stray forehands and Djokovic pulled even at 4-4. After each held serve and sent it to the tiebreaker, Djokovic won the set on another errant forehand by del Potro.
The forehand is usually his strongest weapon but it was erratic on Sunday. “I take the risk with my forehands. I’ve been doing that all the match,” said del Potro, who earned $1.85 million as the runnerup. “Sometimes it go in and sometimes I miss it. But it’s the only way to beat these kind of players. You have to be a perfect game during more than three hours. Sometimes you couldn’t make it. But my mistakes was because the level of Novak. He plays really well.”
Del Potro pushed back in the second set and broke Djokovic’s serve to cut Djokovic’s lead to 3-2, but del Potro’s energy level began to sink. Djokovic, quick and fanatically fit, outlasted him. Del Potro committed 47 unforced errors, 30 on his forehand. “I enjoyed everything,” de Potro said of the tournament. “The worst part to me is the chances that I couldn’t make it of the game. But then when you see a friend holding the trophy, it’s good, too. I’m glad that Novak is the champion. He deserve to be.”
Djokovic wasn’t sure he would be in this position so soon. After a slow start in his return to the tour he felt he was gaining strength only to lose to Marco Cecchinato in the quarterfinals at the French Open. Deciding to disconnect from tennis, he went hiking with his wife in France. As it turned out, reaching the top of Mont Sainte-Victoire gave him the inspiration and motivation to again reach the top of the tennis world. “We just isolated ourselves and took things from a different perspective,” he said. “Ever since then, the tennis is completely different for me.”
After that, he beat Kevin Anderson to win Wimbledon for the fourth time and defeated Roger Federer in straight sets in the final of a pre-U.S. Open tournament in Cincinnati. “Winning a Slam, any Slam, gives you huge confidence that you carry with you for a certain period of time,” he said.
Although the 20-year-old Naomi Osaka broke through to win the women’s title, one of the “Big Four” of Federer, Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal — now really the Big Three because of Murray’s injury-related decline — held off their next-generation challengers. One of the four has won 12 of the last 15 US. Open titles and 50 of the last 55 Grand Slam titles. Djokovic, 31, is likely to add to those totals.
“I love this sport,” he said. “As long as there is that flair in me I really will keep going. I still feel it.”