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.
“First of all, I want to say ‘sorry’ for you fans and Novak, because, I mean, we all know what he was going for today,” said Medevev, a 25-year-old from Russia who lost Djokovic in this year’s Australian Open final and to Rafael Nadal in the 2019 U.S. Open final.
Then, turning toward Djokovic, Medvedev offered praise for “what you accomplished this year and throughout your career” and added: “I never said this to anybody, but I’ll say it right now. For me, you are the greatest tennis player in history.”
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 won the Australian Open final in February, the French Open in June and Wimbledon in July, allowing him to pull even with Nadal and Roger Federer at 20 Grand Slam titles.
But Djokovic, a 34-year-old from Serbia, simply was far from his best on this particular day.
“I know I could have, and should have, done better,” he said.
Djokovic 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 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.
“If there is anyone that deserves a Grand Slam title right now, it’s you,” Djokovic told Medvedev during the trophy ceremony. “So well done.”
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.
After a five-set win over Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Alexander Zverev in the semifinals Friday night, Djokovic looked ahead to what awaited in the final and declared, “I’m going to put my heart and my soul and my body and my head into that one. I’m going to treat the next match like it is the last match of my career.”
But he 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. Unlike in the other instances, he could not come back.
Medvedev, who lost only one set in the entire tournament, didn’t allow it.
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.
“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,” Djokovic told the packed house during the trophy ceremony, pausing between words while sniffling. “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.”