The relief of losing

 - Alix Ramsay

Losing in the US Open final could have been one of the best things that ever happened to Novak Djokovic

Smiling Novak Djokovic© Cédric Lecocq/FFT

Relief. That was what Novak Djokovic felt when he lost in the final of the US Open, his dream of completing the calendar year Grand Slam shattered by Daniil Medvedev. Just relief.

All the tension that had been building since he won the Australian Open in February (beating the very same Medvedev to do so) and that had increased with every major title he collected – suddenly it was gone.

Like the steam escaping from a pressure cooker, the single-minded intensity and focus, the weight of expectation and the sheer, desperate hope was released. Djokovic’s life had returned to normal in the instant the umpire called “game, set and match Medvedev”.

Novak Djokovic holding the finalist's trophy at the 2021 US Open© Paul Zimmer/FFT

So close to making history

Of course, Djokovic wanted to win. Of course, he wanted to be the first man since Rod Laver to hold all four Grand Slam titles in the same year. Of course, he was bitterly disappointed. But that was not why he was in floods of tears.

He was crying because he could now let go of all that stress that he had been carrying with him for months. And he was crying because, for once, the crowd was cheering for him and not for the other bloke. His ultimate goal is to be the best tennis player that has ever lived – and now, at last, the crowd sensed what this moment meant. And they applauded the loser for coming so close to making history.

But where does that leave Djokovic now? Broken? Scarred? Not a bit of it. The greatest weapon in the Serb’s armoury is not his return of serve (although that has torn many an opponent to shreds) nor is it his unbelievable strength, stamina and balance. No, it is his ability to hit the reset button when things go wrong.

Mentally and physically shattered

He has done time and again in matches: he clears his mind; he brushes aside the memories of break points lost and opportunities missed and he simply starts again. And usually, he wins. It is an element of his game that no coach can train an opponent to deal with. Oh, no: Novak’s gone back to basics. We’re doomed.

He has done it away from the court, too. When he secured the non-calendar year Grand Slam in 2016 by winning Roland Garros for the first time, he was mentally and physically shattered.

As he tried to regroup, he found his motivation had evaporated. Achieving everything he had ever wanted, he couldn’t find the spark to go on and achieve more.

Novak Djokovic at practice ahead of the Rolex Paris Masters 2021.© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Novak is hungry again

But, over time, he found a way to hit the reset button (a hiking holiday with his wife helped him rediscover his mojo) and he was back in the winning groove once more. This past summer, he drew level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal by winning his 20th grand slam title – and he made it clear he wanted more. Much more.

Now, after nearly two months of rest and recovery since that loss in New York, he is ready to play again. He has the Rolex Paris Masters, the Nitto Finals and the Davis Cup ahead of him. He wants three more trophies. He wants to stamp his authority on the record books by finishing 2021 as the world No.1, so moving on from the record he currently holds with Pete Sampras, and he wants to do it with a flourish.

If he had won in New York, he may have suffered another slump, another lack of motivation. Now, though, he is hungry again. And that is when Novak Djokovic is at his most dangerous.