It was perhaps inevitable that Novak Djokovic’s frosty relations with the US Open crowd would at some point thaw. That he would one day receive the appreciation he has so often been denied in New York.
That resolution finally came on Sunday evening in an unexpected form inside a jam-packed Arthur Ashe Stadium, after a tournament defined by the unpredictable had delivered one final curveball.
Only minutes after the Russian Daniil Medvedev conjured the performance of a lifetime to deny Djokovic’s bid for a record-setting 21st major and the first calendar-year grand slam in men’s tennis in 52 years, the world No 1 took hold of the microphone and bared his soul to the 25,703 spectators.
“I would like to say that tonight, even though I have not won the match, my heart is filled with joy and I’m the happiest man alive, because you guys made me feel very special. You guys touched my soul,” a misty-eyed Djokovic told the packed house during the trophy ceremony. “I’ve never felt like this in New York, honestly. I’ve never felt like this. I love you guys. Thank you so much for your support. I love you and I’ll see you soon.”
The Serb’s emotional exposure after the shock defeat echoed the rare betrayal of physical vulnerability that preceded it. Djokovic entered as the first player in 132 years – since Quincy Shaw at the 1889 US Championships – to reach the final of a major after winning four matches from a set down along the way. But while that brinksmanship was framed in the run-up as another signpost of Djokovic’s unyielding mental steel, it also meant he entered Sunday’s match having spent nearly six hours more time on court in the tournament than an opponent nearly a decade his junior.
Djokovic has always been his best when flailing out of an emergency, as in his fightback from two sets down against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the French Open final only three months ago, but this time his 34-year-old body would not comply. “My legs were not there,” he confessed afterwards.
From his rise in the shadow of the two of the sport’s most popular ever players, Djokovic has long been accustomed to partisan crowds aligned against him and assuming an apologetic stance after winning emotionally charged matches – and nowhere more often than before the brassy, well-lubricated hordes in Queens, where he was first booed off the court following an infamous 2008 win over Andy Roddick. For years he remained to many a permanent outsider: the third man who disrupted the beloved Federer-Nadal duopoly. Not since Ivan Lendl has one of the sport’s true pantheon figures appeared to be so unloved beyond his core supporters.
But the long-overdue show of appreciation inside Ashe on Sunday evoked scenes of Martina Navratilova, whose tearful remarks after a loss to Tracy Austin in the 1981 US Open final, marked a permanent shift in her relationship with the fans in New York.
Indeed, six years after a US Open final where the Flushing Meadows gallery was so over the top in their support for Federer they cheered Djokovic’s service faults and errors and called out repeatedly between his first and second serves, it was Medvedev’s turn to suffer their wrath as he attempted to serve out the match against an elder statesman.
Even when Djokovic retires as statistically the greatest men’s player of all time – which is all but a certainty at this point – the scars from Sunday’s fall at the final hurdle will endure for a long time. But in the quiet moments following his first defeat in 28 grand slam matches this year, the best player in the world was able to take solace in the support he received.
“Of course, part of me is very sad,” Djokovic said. “It’s a tough one to swallow, this loss, I mean, considering everything that was on the line.
“But on the other hand I felt something I never felt in my life here in New York. The crowd made me very special. They pleasantly surprised me. I did not know, I did not expect anything, but the amount of support and energy and love I got from the crowd was something that I’ll remember forever. I mean, that’s the reason on the changeover I just teared up. The emotion, the energy was so strong. I mean, it’s as strong as winning 21 grand slams. That’s how I felt, honestly. I felt very, very special.
“They touched my heart, honestly. Of course, in the end of the day you want to win. You’re a professional athlete. These are the kind of moments that you cherish. These are connections that you establish with people that will be lasting for a very long time.”
Asked to describe his emotions as he slumped in his chair after losing a match weighted with greater history than any of the 1,175 that came before it, Djokovic was to the point. “Relief,” he said. “I was just glad that finally the run is over. At the same time I felt sadness, disappointment, and also gratitude for the crowd and for that special moment that they’ve created for me on the court.”