New York: A game from the end of his bid for what would have been the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men’s tennis since 1969, Novak Djokovic covered his face with a towel, hiding his tears during a changeover.
For 27 Grand Slam matches in 2021, on hard courts, clay courts and grass, Djokovic could not be deterred, could not be beaten. Needing one more victory, in the U.S. Open final Sunday against Daniil Medvedev, to complete a season sweep of major titles and to claim the record 21st of his career, Djokovic could not come through.
Outplayed by someone using a similar style to his own, Djokovic came up just short of those two historic milestones, losing 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to first-time major champion Medvedev at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The No. 1-ranked Djokovic had been sublime at the sport’s four most important tournaments, enduring the burdens of expectations and pressure over the past seven months and, in New York, the past two weeks.
He beat Medvedev in the Australian Open final in February, then added titles at the French Open in June and Wimbledon in July.
But Djokovic, a 34-year-old from Serbia, couldn’t get to 28-0. He simply was far from his best on this particular day.
He made mistakes, 38 unforced errors in all. He wasn’t able to convert a break chance until it was too little, too late, going just 1 for 6. He showed frustration, too, destroying his racket by pounding it three times against the court after one point, drawing boos from the crowd of 25,703 and a code violation from chair umpire Damien Dumusois.
A lot of Djokovic’s issues had to do with the No. 2-ranked Medvedev, who used his 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) frame to chase down everything and respond with seemingly effortless groundstrokes — much the way Djokovic wears down foes — and delivered pinpoint serving. Medvedev won 20 of his first 23 service points, establishing a pattern.
He finished with 16 aces and 38 winners in all, 11 more than Djokovic. After overcoming multiple double-faults on match point, Medvedev finally finished the job, then toppled over to the court on his side.
Djokovic reached his record-equaling 31st Grand Slam final with six victories on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows. But he could not quite get the last one he needed.
He remains tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with 20 major titles.
And the last man to complete a true Grand Slam by going 4 for 4 at the majors in a single season remains Rod Laver, who did it twice — in 1962 and 1969 — and was in the stands Sunday. The last woman to accomplish the feat was Steffi Graf in 1988.
Instead, Djokovic joins Jack Crawford in 1933 and Lew Hoad in 1956 as men who won a year’s first trio of Grand Slam tournaments and made it all the way to the U.S. Open final before losing.
Djokovic came out a bit cold Sunday, double-faulting in each of his initial two service games and mixing in enough groundstroke miscues — bowing his head or rolling his eyes after some — that 12 minutes in, Medvedev was a point from a second break and a 3-0 lead. Djokovic eventually used a couple of aces at 117 mph and 124 mph to hold there, but it was Medvedev who stole the show in the early going.
This was the fifth consecutive match in which Djokovic dropped the first set — and 11th in Grand Slam play this year — but unlike in the other instances, he could not come back to win.
Djokovic got to love-40 in Medvedev’s first service game of the second set but did not come through on any of those break points. On the third, Djokovic put a sliced backhand in the net, then pounded his racket against his left thigh — one, two, three, four times, perhaps as disappointed in his footwork as anything.
Thousands in the audience tried to boost him by chanting his nickname, “No-le! No-le! No-le!” After some of Medvedev’s faults, some in the stands would applaud, considered poor form in tennis and repeatedly admonished with a “please” from Dumusois.