Novak Djokovic, Back in New York and Loving It as Never Before

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For two years, Novak Djokovic has been dreaming about New York.

He has had plenty of success here, winning the U.S. Open three times. It’s where he made one of his most famous shots, returning Roger Federer’s serve with a walloping forehand when he was down double match point in their semifinal in 2011.

His mind, though, has been stuck on one of his lowest moments, just before the end of his disappointing loss in the 2021 U.S. Open singles final against Daniil Medvedev.

Djokovic was one win away from just about the only thing he has not accomplished in his career — becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four Grand Slams in a single year. He sat in his chair on the sideline before the final game listening to the crowd of 23,000 in Arthur Ashe Stadium, who had long mostly cheered for his beloved opponents, roaring for him instead. He sobbed into a towel.

He knew that New York crowds appreciated seeing greatness and history. He had felt and heard them pulling for him as soon as he walked onto the court, and they were still there for him as he sat on the edge of defeat.

“I fell in love with the New Yorkers and New York in a completely different way that day,” Djokovic said during an interview on a quiet Wednesday evening in the player garden outside the stadium.

After missing the tournament last year because of his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19, Djokovic is finally back at the U.S. Open. Like his collection of Grand Slam singles titles, now numbering 23 and the most of any man, the love he felt that Sunday two years ago seems only to have grown, on both sides.

“I cannot wait to have Novak back in New York,” Stacey Allaster, the tournament director, said during a recent news conference.

Djokovic has always been a gladiator on the court. He roars, pounds his chest, returns taunts from fans and smashes the occasional racket. He got himself defaulted from the 2020 U.S. Open when he swatted a ball in anger and inadvertently hit a line judge.

But now, at 36, he has grown into being relaxed and introspective off it. While he has no shortage of pointed political stances, which he does not hide, he also apologizes for being late, makes fun of himself, and is easy with a smile. He wants people to like him, and he isn’t afraid to admit it.

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The public has seen more of the latter since the French Open in June, when Djokovic overtook Federer and Rafael Nadal, his longtime rivals, in the race for the most Grand Slam singles titles.

Fans packed the lower bowl of Ashe for his first practice at the stadium last week. Amid cranking serves and banging backhand returns, Djokovic acceded to the shouted requests for his famous tennis impersonations, mimicking the motions of Maria Sharapova, Andy Roddick, Pete Sampras and others that are part of a routine that began in the U.S. Open locker room in 2007, many championships ago.

“Kind of a signal that I’m feeling very comfortable on the court,” he said afterward. “Good fun. Positive energy.”

Afterward, he told Allaster that it was one of the best practice sessions he had ever had.

When security guards gave the signal that the hitting session was nearing its end, children — and plenty of adults, too — pushed toward the edge of the court, waving phones and oversized tennis balls as they clamored for pictures and autographs. Djokovic spent more than 20 minutes working the edge of the court like a presidential candidate on a rope line as fans from the other side of it chanted his name, hoping to get him to come over there next.

He couldn’t. A gym workout awaited. He has not come for another round of sympathy cheers. He is studying videos of the top competition, keeping to his strict regimen, getting his sleep, eating before it gets too late, and watching every morsel of food he puts in his mouth.

Wednesday night’s protein- and carbohydrate-packed dinner, eaten shortly after his gym session, was two salmon steaks, two large baked sweet potatoes, healthy servings of small yellow potatoes and chickpeas, and a bowl of pasta with olive oil and fresh vegetables.

“The matches are going to get tougher, more demanding as the tournament progresses,” he said between bites. “So I’m always thinking in advance. I’m focusing on the next challenge, of course, but I also have in the back of my mind the long-term goal and the long-term plan, which is to win this tournament.”

Much has changed since Djokovic last came close to winning here. He has become the elder legend of the sport and solidified his status as the greatest player of the modern era. Federer is retired. Nadal is recovering from surgery and on the edge of retirement. Carlos Alcaraz, the 20-year-old Spanish upstart long touted as the sport’s next big thing, has emerged ahead of schedule to fulfill every lofty expectation. He is the U.S. Open’s reigning champion and the world No 1.

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Fending him off, and all the other comers of the so-called next next generation (an ungentle swipe at the mid- and late-20-somethings like Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, whom Alcaraz has leapfrogged) is likely the final chapter of Djokovic’s career. His Grand Slam rivalry this year with Alcaraz, a rare and tantalizing intergenerational duel that pits raw talent and athleticism against inimitable experience, is the story of the sport.

Djokovic prevailed in their first match at the French Open, where Alcaraz succumbed to stress-induced cramping, but lost in five thrilling sets in the Wimbledon final. Maybe it was a torch-passing moment. Maybe not. Either way, Djokovic is enjoying himself. Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner of Italy and Holger Rune of Denmark, he said, are members of a generation that unapologetically believes it is capable of beating him to win big tournaments. They are bold, and he loves that.

“My role nowadays is to prevent them from that,” he said with the sly grin that has become a late-career trademark.

He can remember when he was one of them, in his late teens and early 20s, showing up in New York and, like many players before him, being blown away by the size and energy of the city. For a kid from a mountain town in the Balkans, even one who had traveled throughout Europe for tennis, it was a lot.

On his first visit, he stayed with family friends in New Jersey, commuting every day to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Every time he sees a sign for the Midtown Tunnel, his thoughts drift back to the innocence of that first trip in 2003.

Now he spends the week before the U.S. Open at a hotel in Manhattan, soaking in the energy of the city, before moving with his wife and young children to a friend’s estate in Alpine, N.J. There, he switches into “lockdown mode” and finds peace and serenity among the trees and nature, especially on the days between matches, when he will often practice with hitting partners there rather than trekking to Queens.

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There is another advantage to that locale. Djokovic has heard plenty of stories in the locker room of players who have fallen victim to the pull of the New York night. Some of them involve his peers, and he may have even accompanied them to a club or two in an earlier life.

“I was lucky early on to have people around me that kept me at bay,” he said. “But I did have freedom to explore and go around. Let’s say that I did get to know New York at night as well.”

That will not happen this year, not with the memory of the loss to Alcaraz so fresh in his mind and the young Spaniard presenting a challenge equal to Djokovic’s greatest duels with Federer, Nadal and Andy Murray in his prime. After that Wimbledon loss, Djokovic put his rackets away for two weeks and headed for Croatia and Montenegro to vacation with his family in the mountains and the waters he knows so well. He pulled out of the National Bank Open in Toronto, citing fatigue.

The tennis schedule does not indulge regret and hindsight, though, and quickly it was time to begin preparing for the next quest, the tournaments that often unfold in the sweltering, late-summer humidity of Cincinnati and New York. He trained in the hottest times of European summer days. Then he did two more “big heat” workouts when he arrived in Cincinnati for the Western & Southern Open.

Good thing. Last Sunday’s final against Alcaraz was an enthralling, three-set slugfest that Djokovic won in a deciding-set tiebreaker that lasted nearly four hours and pushed him to the edge of heat stroke. Alcaraz cramped in the climactic moments. Djokovic called it one of the toughest mental and physical challenges of his career.

A grueling test like that wasn’t really a part of his U.S. Open prep plan, but the intent was to win the tournament. It always is.

“How you win and how long does it take, that’s something that’s unpredictable,” he said. “Better this way than losing a match like that, that’s for sure.”

Or, love and dreamy moment aside, the one that happened in New York the last time around. This year, he hopes, another kind of dream awaits.

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