How the US Open was won
Just 12 months ago, when elbow surgery forced Novak Djokovic to miss the 2017 US Open, we were left wondering whether his time as a fixture in Grand Slam finals was coming to an end.
The Serb had failed to get beyond the quarter-finals of any slam in 2017, and his run of five wins from six in 2015 and 2016 was beginning to feel like a distant memory.
Now, though, we have been made to look foolish. After beating Kevin Anderson to win the Wimbledon men’s singles title in July, Djokovic has gone back-to-back with a straight-sets victory over Juan Martin Del Potro at Flushing Meadows.
His run to glory wasn’t just about the final, though, so here’s a look back at how Djokovic earned the 14th Grand Slam title of his career and 71st singles title overall.
Djokovic went about it in the opposite way to some of his generation’s more dominant title-winners: while his contemporaries have blitzed opponents in opening rounds before edging through endurance matches in the latter stages of a tournament, the only sets he dropped were in the first two rounds.
The conditions may have played a part in this, with a first round battle against Marton Fuscovics made tougher by the sweltering heat. Djokovic struggled in the conditions – so extreme that they warranted an unprecedented hot-weather break for both players – but eventually escaped with a four-set victory against a man who has never progressed beyond the first round at Flushing Meadows.
Tennys Sandgren had a much smoother path to the second round, and represented a tough test at that stage of the tournament, but again Djokovic found himself with a second opponent on the day: himself.
Djokovic spoke about having “lost it mentally” against the American, dropping the third set on a tie-break, but whatever he lost he got back in time to secure a four-set victory.
Former US Open semi-finalist Richard Gasquet was next up, followed by giantkiller Joao Sousa after the Portuguese eliminated two seeds in the opening three rounds, but both were despatched with little fanfare.
The quarter-final, though, was a case of déjà vu for Djokovic.
At Wimbledon, he faced a tired Anderson on centre-court after the South African had dismissed Roger Federer in a five-setter we might call epic were it not for the 26-24 final set victory over John Isner which followed in the semis.
When the US Open draw was made, we looked likely to get the Djokovic-Federer meeting we’d missed out on in London, only for the number two seed – yet to drop a set before the fourth round – to suffer a shock elimination at the hands of John Millman.
No one was more surprised than Djokovic himself, who said “I was, I think, alongside many other people, anticipating the match against Federer.”
Not that the Australian was a complete pushover, though: conditions were tough again, with humidity playing its part, meaning the 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory was stop-start for reasons unrelated to the actual tennis.
After a straight-sets dismissal of Kei Nishikori in the semis, Djokovic was forced to play the role of spoilsport as Del Potro pushed for a second US Open triumph nine years after his first.
"He's playing the tennis of his life, without a doubt, in the last 15 months," Djokovic said of his opponent before the meeting, and that combination of an in-form player and challenging conditions may well have been Djokovic’s way of letting people know that just because he wasn’t up against Federer or Nadal, it didn’t mean it would be easy.
Sure enough, the final was a tougher task than the three-setters which preceded it, but a hard-fought second set tie break – not long after a service game which lasted a full 20 minutes – set the stage.
If that wasn’t enough to grind down Del Potro, an epic 22-stroke rally at the start of the third set did the trick.
Not long after, it was all over. Seven matches, 23 sets, just 76 games dropped. As conclusive a Grand slam victory as they come.
Djokovic now has a bit of time off before travelling to China for the Rolex Shanghai Masters in October and making a trip to Paris later in the month.
After winning two Grand Slams in succession he’ll certainly fancy his chances, while he will have one eye on the ATP Finals in November.
Victory in New York moved him up to second in the Race to London, with Del Potro climbing two places to third, and we could well see the pair reunited in the UK at the end of the year.