From a Grand Slam where he was booed off the court in 2019, defaulted in 2020, crashed in the final hurdle chasing history in 2021 and debarred in 2022, Novak Djokovic walked off with an all-time record-equalling 24th major. For tennis’ statistical GOAT (greatest of all time) seldom shy of speaking his mind, the 2023 US Open title was a statement of resurgence.
That, aside from the 36-year-old’s tactical dismantling of Russia’s Daniil Medvedev — his dream-destroyer of 2021 — 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3 while trudging his weary legs to become the oldest men’s singles champion in New York. Aside from Djokovic, who started the 2018 season on 12 Slams, doubling it in 2023 to match Margaret Court’s all-time count of 24 — partly in the amateur era — and widening his lead over rivals Rafael Nadal (22) and Roger Federer (20). Aside from Djokovic winning three Slams in a single year for the fourth time in his career, surpassing Federer (thrice).
The last time the Serb was there, he stood one step short of a rare Slam season sweep last achieved by Rod Laver in 1969. Two years ago in the final on the same court against the same opponent on Sunday, Djokovic sat with his head buried under the towel while sobbing almost uncontrollably after a straight-sets defeat.
The year before that at the US Open, Djokovic was sensationally defaulted after accidentally hitting a lineswoman with the ball during his fourth-round match. Hastened out of Flushing Meadows, the title favourite was stripped of his prize money and ranking points.
The year before that at the US Open, Djokovic was jeered off Arthur Ashe Stadium after choosing to retire mid-match in the fourth round due to a shoulder injury. Coming into New York winning four of the previous five majors then, it was a sombre flashback to the early pulling-the-plug days of Djokovic before he would push the fitness envelope.
The season-ending Slam, Djokovic’s least productive where he lost more finals than won — his last triumph in 2018 was just the third from nine finals before Sunday — had turned into a place he’d rather not be. And last year, one where he wasn’t allowed to be. Just like the 2022 Australian Open, Djokovic was kept away from the 2022 US Open because of his refusal to take the vaccine for Covid-19.
Just like the 2023 Australian Open, Djokovic returned to the 2023 US Open stamping his foot on the Slam that closed the doors on him.
“I guess people love comeback stories. I love them too. They motivate me,” Djokovic said after beating Medvedev.
“Obviously, different circumstances, Australia and here. I haven’t played any tournament on American soil for two years. The last time I was here I lost in the final to the same player I beat today.”
Djokovic, the man with unparalleled hunger to chart his own legacy-defining path, can find motivation anywhere. Even in defeats. And so, losing to Medvedev two years ago, he was eager to correct the wrong at the 2023 US Open. And so, losing to Carlos Alcaraz two months ago in the 2023 Wimbledon final in a generational battle, he was eager to grab the baton again at the 2023 US Open.
“People like to talk. There’s a lot of different opinions out there. It’s not my interest to review who talks or thinks about whether there’s a passing of the torch happening or not in the sport,” Djokovic said. “I focus on what I need to do and how I can get myself in an optimal state so that I could win the biggest trophies in our sport. That’s what I care about.”
And when that does not happen — like at the US Open for the last four years for those wide-ranging reasons — it places Djokovic in an unfamiliar territory. Asked, therefore, in March when he was again denied visa to enter the US to play ATP events in Indian Wells and Miami about whether he regretted his decision of missing big tournaments instead of getting jabbed, Djokovic told CNN, “I have no regrets. I’ve learned through life that regrets only hold you back and basically make you live in the past.
“I don’t want to do that. I also don’t want to live too much in the future. I want to be as much as in the present moment.” Which is that Djokovic, after all those troubles times in New York, is back as a US Open champion.