Brad Pitt was galvanising Novak Djokovic when everyone in the Serb’s box was sitting shell-shocked. Leonardo DiCaprio was miming a forehand, explaining to a companion after a straightforward miss from Djokovic. But the two stars couldn’t script a win for the World No. 1. This wasn’t Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there was no revisionist, happy ending. Rewriting all scripts was a 25-year-old from Russia.
In the Australian Open final at the start of the year, Daniil Medvedev was dismantled by Djokovic, who then consoled: “It’s a matter of time when you’re going to hold a Grand Slam… if you don’t mind waiting a few more years.”
The wait lasted seven months. Medvedev won his maiden Grand Slam title, thwarting Djokovic’s bid to clinch all four Majors in the calendar year. But it was his under-the-radar run to the final that projected Medvedev as a non-entity.
The fortnight saw storylines aplenty. Djokovic himself was the subject of a narrative other than the calendar Grand Slam. He had lost five opening sets in the tournament. So when he lost the sixth on Sunday, the odds actually leaned even more in his favour.
But who knew that when Djokovic said he was going to treat Sunday’s final as the “last match of his career”, he would actually play like that. Overwrought and outplayed. The ultimate baseliner was beaten at his own game. Early on in the contest, he pummelled his quads — “my legs were not there” — desperately trying to locate the ‘On’ button.
The emotions weren’t in check either. He almost launched a ball into the stands, a ball girl nearly caught in the crossfire, left cowering, perhaps replaying the moment from last year when a wayward ball off Djokovic’s racquet hit an umpire in the throat. The Serb stopped just in time. Moments later, he destroyed his racquet hammering the floor.
Still under the radar, watching tennis’ marathon man crumble and combust across the net, was Medvedev, whose life has been about revelling in Dostoevsky-esque ironies. The first Russian man to win a Grand Slam title would have been born in France as planned, if not for preterm birth. The minor health complications meant he is deemed unsuitable for compulsory military service, even though the 6’6 lanky player is one of the fitter, faster men on tour.
He swore off video games at tournaments after one 8 pm-to-7am romp led to a heavy defeat. Yet, his first celebration on Sunday saw him flop to the blue concrete, an ode to the ‘dead fish celebration’ from the FIFA video game series. “Only legends will understand… L2 + left,” he said.
“I talked to the guys in the locker (room)… They were like, ‘That’s legendary’”, Medvedev said.
The biggest irony is that his coronation came at the US Open. It was his breakout run to the final two years ago that made him public enemy No. 1. Booed vociferously for his antics, Medvedev soaked it in, taunted and showed the middle finger, playing the perfect villain.
New York — the longest-reigning champion of embarrassing tennis crowds — took an active part in the match on Sunday. And with Medvedev finally misfiring in the third set, the crowd began cheering for double faults, jeering, whistling and booing during his service. He squandered a championship point and conceded a break while trying to hustle through his serves as spectators refused to pipe down.
Shaken and under the spotlight, Medvedev could have let loose again. Unlike 2019, he carried on unwavering.
The Russian was standing between Djokovic and the Grand Slam. Between the audience and several thousand ‘I-was-there’ moments. For a moment, Djokovic spurred into life. He flashed his first genuine smile of the match, then buried his face in the towel and bawled. Tears in his eyes, the crowd chanting his name, ‘Nole’ the veteran gunslinger stood up to the quick-drawing youngster one last time. And failed.
Solace in failure
By his own admission, there was relief after defeat. Apart from his dominance and imperious game, a facet of the 34-year-old’s career has been the need to be loved. He would hand out candy in the press room and devise corny signature celebrations. He is quick to point out that he is not as loved as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
New York has been especially unkind. His three US Open titles and six runner-up finishes have been set to the chorus of unrelenting, obnoxious boos. Clubbed with the previews for Sunday’s final were features dissecting why New York has cheered against him and wouldn’t embrace his quest for a Grand Slam.
But whether it was the desire to see history being made, or seeing a champion out of sorts, New York was all Djokovic on Sunday.
“You guys touched my soul. I have never felt like this is New York even though I have not won the match, my heart is filled with joy and I am the happiest man alive because you guys made me feel very special on the court,” Djokovic fought tears at the ceremony.
The cherry on the sundae was securing Medvedev’s vote in the GOAT debate. “I want to say sorry to the fans and Novak… For me, you are the greatest tennis player in history,” Medvedev said.
The once-in-a-lifetime opportunity has gone. But Djokovic can find solace in the bittersweet defeat. Which came from Russia, with love.