Novak Djokovic Is Still Fantastic, Keeps Winning The Big Ones

Novak Djokovic (photo: Jürgen Hasenkopf)

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON, September 12, 2023 (by Michael Dickens)

Everyone loves a good comeback story – even Novak Djokovic. Ask him and he’ll tell you comeback stories motivate him.

On Sunday, Djokovic completed his latest comeback story at the US Open. After not playing in the year’s last major for two years – after being denied entry into the United States for his refusal to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, which forced him to miss the 2022 US Open – the 36-year-old Serbian wound up winning the US Open for the fourth time. He beat the player, Daniel Medvedev, who beat him 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 and kept him from winning a calendar Grand Slam two years ago. En route to capturing the 2023 crown, he took out Alexandre Muller, Bernabe Zapata Miralles, Laslo Djere, Borna Gojo, Taylor Fritz and Ben Shelton, losing just two sets, before facing Medvedev.

Djokovic’s 6-3 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory over Medvedev was his 24th career major title, extending his own record and further distancing himself from Rafael Nadal‘s 22, and it also tied him with Margaret Court for the career record – man or woman – of 24 Grand Slams. The US Open crown was his third Grand Slam title of the year to go with earlier triumphs at the Australian Open and Roland Garros.

“I definitely would sign, right away, the paper if somebody would tell me I would win three out of four [majors] and play Wimbledon finals,” Djokovic said during his victory news conference, which took place about two hours after he wrapped up his latest major triumph on Arthur Ashe Stadium, before the 25th straight 24,000-strong sellout of the largest tennis theater in the world this New York fortnight.

“There is a little regret that I didn’t win that Wimbledon final. But, look, in the end of the day, you know, I have so much more to be happier and content with than actually to regret something.”

Despite enduring through Sunday’s three-hour, 16-minute final with the roof closed over Arthur Ashe Stadium – including a 105-minute second set that was decided by a tiebreaker – Djokovic has shown no signs of slowing down or letting up.

“I don’t think I have ever played a longer set in my life, particularly not on this occasion against a top player like Daniil,” Djokovic said. “I think he was probably a better player in the second set. He deserved to win that set more than I did. Somehow, I managed to turn things around in the tie-break. When it mattered, I put one ball into play more than he did. And that was enough.”

Djokovic added: “Honestly, in the second I felt like I was losing air on so many occasions, and my legs, as well. I don’t recall being so exhausted after rallies really as I have been in the second set.”

Now that he’s reached the end of his 19th year of competing – and contending – for Grand Slam titles, the history-making Serbian icon just keeps getting better with age. In fact, Djokovic has become the oldest man to win the US Open, surpassing the record of then-35-year-old Ken Rosewall

“You know, I really did my best in the last 48 hours not to allow the importance of the moment and what’s on the line get to my head. Two years ago, that’s what happened, and I underperformed and I wasn’t able to be at my best and I was outplayed [by Medvedev].

“So, I learned my lesson. My team, my family knew that the last 24 hours, don’t touch me, don’t speak to me about, you know, the history of what’s on the line.”

Djokovic smiled as he spoke his carefully chosen words.

“I really did my best to keep things quite simple and stick to the routines that brought me to where I am and treat this match really as any other match where I just need to win.”

On Monday, Djokovic began a record-extending 390th week atop the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.

“To be honest with you, I was probably not thinking so intensely and concretely about the history of the weeks at No. 1 or most Slams until maybe three years ago,” he said.

“Then I realized, ‘Okay, I’m quite close for weeks in No. 1. I also have a pretty good chance at the Grand Slams if I keep healthy and if I’m playing well.’ Of course, the Slams at that point seemed a little bit less reachable than weeks of No. 1, but I believed. I believed that I’ll make it.

“I don’t put any number right now in my mind on how many Slams I want to win until the end of my career. I don’t really have any number.”

Djokovic admits it’s a constant process of trying to get better and trying to implement certain things that work for him and finding that formula.

“When you find it, you know, the biggest I feel like, one of the biggest lessons I have learned probably mentally throughout my career is that, you know, even if you find a formula that works, it’s not a guarantee, and actually most likely it’s not going to work the next year,” he said.

Djokovic, who has reached the final in 36 of the 72 Grand Slams he’s competed in, is driven to excel. Just ask Goran Ivanisevic, who has coached Djokovic since 2019. “Generally, [everything] he does just drives him,” Ivanisevic said, “and he wants more and more. That is why he wants everything to be perfect … and that is why he has unbelievable results.”

Now, with major title No. 24 secured, Djokovic will stand down to rest and recover – and, no doubt, enjoy family time – with an eye toward returning to the ATP Tour in time for the Rolex Paris Masters in Bercy at the end of October. It’s likely he will miss the entire upcoming Asia Swing in China.

“You need to reinvent yourself, because everyone else does,” Djokovic admits. “As a 36-year-old competing with 20-year-olds I probably have to do it more than I have ever done it in order to keep my body in shape, in order to be able to recover so that I can perform on the highest level consistently.

“Also, the mentally and emotionally to still keep the right balance between motivation so that I’m actually inspired and motivated to play the best tennis and to compete with these guys and to actually not let go in the moments when I maybe can, and at the same time keep the playfulness and passion for the sport.

“Because, you know, I can be very – how can I say – down on myself and go into really high-stress moments, you know, on the practice days or matches. You know, you spend a lot of energy. But I guess, you know, maybe you can call me perfectionist.

“I mean, I know I’m not the only one. I know there are a lot of great champions in different sports that thrive on this kind of approach to perfect themselves, their approach, their game, their performance, their recovery, every single day. On and on. That’s why LeBron James still keeps going at his age, or Tom Brady, you know, greats like that, that are inspiring.

“That’s basically it. You know, it’s a constant, evolving process of me trying to implement certain things that will give me an edge over the young guns. …

“Knowing how that I play at such a high level still and I win the biggest tournaments in this sport, I don’t want to get rid of this sport or I don’t want to leave this sport if I’m still at the top, you know, if I’m still playing the way I’m playing.”

Spoken like a true champion.