The return of Djokovic halts Del Potro

 - Michael Beattie

From surgery in February to two majors by September, it has been some year for Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic smiling while holding the trophy US Open 2018©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Fatherhood. Burnout. Surgery. By his own reckoning, Novak Djokovic’s life has been turned upside down over the past two years. But having won his third US Open title with a vintage omnipresent performance against Juan Martin Del Potro, the Serbian is back to his devastating best sooner than even he thought possible. One of the greatest returners in the history of the game has made one of the game’s great returns in 2018.

“If you told me in February this year when I got the surgery that I'll win Wimbledon, US Open, and Cincinnati, would be hard to believe,” said the 31-year-old. “But at the same time there was always part of me that imagined and believed and hoped that I can get back on the desired level of tennis very soon.”

Some tears at the end

Djokovic is now level with his idol Pete Sampras in terms of Grand Slam titles won, claiming a share of the third-largest trophy haul in the men’s game behind Roger Federer on 20 majors, and Rafael Nadal on 17. “There is a lot of significance of me being now shoulder to shoulder in terms of Grand Slam wins with him,” he said. “It’s truly incredible when you think about it. I watched him win one of his first Wimbledon championships, and I grew up playing and thinking that one day I’ll be able to do what he does. To actually be here, it’s a dream come true.”

Back in 2002, Sampras claimed the most unlikely of his 14 major triumphs on that same court, at the same age; it proved to be the American’s last ever match. But don’t expect Djokovic to follow suit; if anything, the events of the past four months must surely encourage him to redouble his efforts to stay in the game as long as possible.

The same is true of Del Potro, whose tears at the end of the 6-3 7-6(4) 6-3 defeat continued long after the trophy ceremony. “To be honest, I was crying till now,” he revealed during his press conference. But these were not tears borne out of the record nine-year gap between his two Grand Slam final appearances, or in recognition of how far he’d come since those days he contemplated calling time on his career on account of his battered wrists.

"I'm very sad for being a loser today"

Instead, they were the tears of a player who not only knows how rare such opportunities are, but just how close he had come to a second title. It was the result that stung, not the lost years leading up to this stellar 2018 season. In his heart, he knows he is a contender once more, and for that, the sport should be truly grateful.

“I’m very sad for being a loser today,” Del Potro said. “But Novak deserved to take the trophy. He played a great match, very smart game. I had my opportunities during second and third set, but I was playing almost at the limit all the time, looking for winners with my forehands, backhands, and I couldn’t make it because Novak was there every time. He’s a great champion, so I’m glad for him.”

Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del potro smiling on the podium during trophy presentation US Open 2018©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Electrifying minutes

Djokovic said the atmosphere within the cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium – where the roof was closed on a decidedly autumnal evening in New York – was akin to a football match. Cheers of ‘Ole! Ole! Ole!’ from the vocal Del Potro fans were all but constant, led by the ‘Tandil 12’ – a group of Del Potro’s friends kitted out in his various kits from recent tournaments. Djokovic’s supporters made their voices heard, too, their chants and cheers ringing around the stadium to deafening effect. At one stage, Djokovic asked if there was a problem with the speakers on court, as he simply couldn’t hear them.

With conditions nigh-on perfect and having both come through straight-forward semi-finals, the players could let their tennis do the talking. Djokovic, who arrived with a 14-4 record against Del Potro, including four unanswered wins at the majors, struck first, producing a string of impeccable returns as Del Potro served at 3-4, 40-0 to steal the game, and with it the opening set.

For 22 electrifying minutes midway through the second, the Serbian’s grip on the final threatened to slip. As his forehand finally found its range to devastating effect from 2-1 down, Del Potro, buoyed after recovering that early break, reached deuce at 3-4 and sensed his moment. the Argentine guided a backhand winner down the line that turned the volume in Arthur Ashe Stadium up to 11 and brought up the first of three break points. A chance to serve to level the match beckoned. But on each occasion, the No.3 seed let Djokovic off the hook with an error.

Situation during novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro US Open 2018 final©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Greatest damages because of the return

“I take the risk with my forehands – I’ve been doing that all the match,” the Argentine admitted. “Sometimes it goes in, and sometimes I miss it. But it’s the only way to beat these kinds of players: you have to play a perfect game for more than three hours. Sometimes you couldn't make it. But my mistakes were because the level of Novak. He played really well.”

It was the same story in the ensuing tiebreak, when Del Potro’s forehand unforgivably found the net at 4-4. With that, his chance to level up had passed, and Djokovic turned the screw. “I was really lucky not to get broken the second time in the second set,” he said. “The dynamic of the match could have gone either way. That was the turning point really.”

Fittingly, it was the Serbian’s return that did the greatest damage to Del Potro, whose serve had been so devastating ahead of the final. Two of Djokovic’s mini-breaks came off serves fired down at 129mph and 132mph, while an early break in the third set was a masterclass. Three reactive drives skidded inside the baseline after the Delpo delivery, sandwiching a stunning defensive point in which the Argentine would have beaten most players four times over.

Suddenly 3-1 down, Del Potro leaned on his knees, hit by the realisation he needed as many sets as Djokovic needed games. The Argentine rallied to break back, only to produce his only double-fault of the match to open the door once more, pulling a backhand wide to give up a 5-3 lead. This time there was to be no denying Djokovic, who buried a smash and fell to the court in triumph.

Novak Djokovic climbing in his box after the 2018 US Open final©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
The Mont Sainte-Victoire explains all?

After the match, Djokovic reflected on how far he has come in 2018, recalling a trip to the south of France following his exit from Roland-Garros. He and his wife Jelena took a hike one day, climbing a nearby mountain. “It was pretty high,” Djokovic said. “We reached the top after three hours.

“We sat down and we just looked at the world from that perspective, just kind of breathed in the new inspiration, new motivation. I thought of tennis, thought of the emotion that tennis provokes in me, in a way. It was all positives. I just felt like I had a new breath for this sport. The rest is history in terms of results, in terms of how I felt. I just felt like a whole wave of energy that I was kind of thriving on from that moment onwards.”

The mountain in question? Mont Sainte-Victoire, made famous by Cezanne, Picasso, and Kandinsky, to name but a few. Now Djokovic can count himself among the artists to have drawn inspiration from its peaks.