As Ben Shelton’s last gasp in Friday’s U.S. Open semifinal missed the mark and it was officially Novak Djokovic’s match, the 23-time Grand Slam champion put his right hand up, thumb and pinkie extended, as though he were answering a phone.
This little gesture was obviously intentional because it was similar to the move Shelton made after beating Frances Tiafoe in the quarterfinals three nights before. Shelton, the 20-year-old American, is brash and not afraid to show it. He celebrates a lot, he points to his ear a lot, he flexes his muscles — sometimes in the middle of games he hasn’t even won yet, during matches he is losing, as he did once or twice against Djokovic.
Djokovic, meanwhile, stayed largely stoic throughout the match. He, too, was once a 20-year-old who knew how to drum up approval on this court. But now, at 36, he just plays, drains the will out of you, kills your dreams and moves on to the next round.
After Djokovic hung up the finger phone, he and Shelton met at the net for the customary post-match handshake. Typically, when the legend beats the up-and-coming local, this is a heartwarming moment. Many pats on the chest, words of encouragement. But this was a surprisingly quick, icy handshake for two players who had never met before.
FINALS BOUND 😤
— ESPN (@espn) September 8, 2023
Whether there was any real tension there or it was just an inevitable moment between two players full of bravado, the message was clear: Djokovic is still here, answering the call. As tennis fans’ wandering eyes start to drift toward the youthful likes of Carlos Alcaraz, Coco Gauff and the rest of this latest next generation, the man who has stamped out many supposed next generations before this one would like to remind you he is still the best player in the world.
Two days later, there was Djokovic again, this time in the final, battling Daniil Medvedev. He was also battling an apparent leg injury, each step looking like his foot first had to dislodge itself from mud before it could move, something the rest of the world’s upper-30-somethings can relate to. Djokovic won the first set easily, but between the ailment and the lengthy slugfest points with the 27-year-old Russian who seems to get every ball back across the net, the second set was tight. And long. It lasted one hour, 44 minutes — the longest set of the tournament. It was enough to make you wonder whether the 36-year-old could still do this, could still answer another call.
The set consisted of 12 straight holds, but six of them went to deuce and four lasted 12 points or longer. In the tiebreak, Medvedev got an early mini-break, then gave it back. With Medvedev serving at 4-4, one of the best points of the match ensued. Djokovic reached out wide to his right to punch back the serve, then lunged left and right — his racket slapping the floor on three shots in the rally — to stab back Medvedev’s relentless forehands. On the 22nd shot of the point, Djokovic cut a drop shot from the baseline to the far sideline, just over the net. It would’ve been a winner against most humans, but Medvedev got to it, sliced it back over the net for a tricky dropper of his own, and Djokovic couldn’t handle it, leaving him with his hands on his knees in exhaustion and a 4-5 deficit.
“Hard to see any point you’ll ever see, at any event, with players digging deeper than they are right now,” John McEnroe said on the ESPN broadcast.
It was Djokovic’s serve now, and another rally ensued, the players bludgeoning backhands at each other. But Djokovic hit harder. 5-5. Then, a perfect serve into the corner of the box that Medvedev could not handle. 6-5.
The serve was Medvedev’s again, but so was the pressure. One set and set point down, against a hobbled opponent, he had to win this tiebreak. And so he got his first serve in, but Djokovic — one of the greatest returners in the history of the game — did what he does. Punched it back. Started a rally. And Medvedev made the mistake, slapping a backhand into the net.
Djokovic was up two sets and cruised from there, finishing Medvedev 6-2 in the third to win his 24th major singles title, tying Margaret Court for the most all time, men or women.
“I had the childhood dream when I was 7, 8. I wanted to become the best player in the world and win the Wimbledon trophy. That was the only thing I wanted,” he said in his post-match interview, laughing at the concept of “only” in that context. “I never imagined that I would be here … talking about 24 Slams. I never thought that would be the reality. But, last couple years, I felt I have a chance, I felt I have a shot at history, and why not grab it if it’s presented?”
The win also avenged his loss to Medvedev in the U.S. Open final in 2021, when Djokovic was one win away from the calendar-year Grand Slam, which hasn’t happened in men’s singles since Rod Laver did it in 1969.
It also capped what will go down as one of the best years of Djokovic’s legendary career. Just like in 2021, he won three majors and made the final in the other — his loss to Alcaraz in the Wimbledon final this year was the only blemish on his major record. He is 45-5 so far in 2023, winning 90 percent of his matches. If he maintains that pace in whatever tournaments he plays in the rest of the year, it would be his best winning percentage since 2015.
And, of course, he’s once again the No. 1 player in the world, with a strong chance to get just about the only record he doesn’t own yet: the oldest player ever to be No. 1. That belongs to Roger Federer, but Djokovic can break it early next year.
The next major is the Australian Open, which Djokovic has won 10 times, including the last four times he’s been allowed in the country. He will be the favorite at the French Open, probably Wimbledon and probably in New York.
This is all to say that he is almost certainly not done. Time will come for Novak Djokovic, as it does for everyone, but that day is not today.
(Top photo: Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Images)