Novak Djokovic completed the sweetest of returns to Flushing Meadows on Sunday night – banned in 2022, the oldest champion ever in 2023.
The 36-year-old Serbian won his first US Open title in five years when he saw off Daniil Medvedev in a brutally physical encounter that pushed both men to their limits, even with a straight sets outcome of 6-3, 7-6, 6-3.
For Djokovic a 24th Grand Slam title in his 36th final was a signal that his Wimbledon reversal was an aberration rather than the start of a trend, and he moves two Majors ahead of Rafael Nadal, surely never to be caught. That will probably mean more to him than equaling the mark of Margaret Court from an earlier era.
‘It obviously means the world to me,’ Djokovic told the crowd after a tearful embrace with his daughter Tara. ‘I’m living my childhood dream to compete in this sport at the top. To make history of this sport is truly remarkable and special. I never thought I would be talking about 24 Slams but last couple of years I thought I had a shot.’
He then paid tribute to his late friend, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, by wearing a ‘Mamba Mentality’ shirt for the presentation: ‘I thought of doing this T shirt if I get the chance to win the tournament. I didn’t share it with anyone. Kobe was a close friend, we chatted a lot about the winners mentality. He was one of the people I relied on the most, he was always there for counsel and support. I thought 24 is the jersey he wore when he became a legend so I thought it would be nice to acknowledge him.’
Djokovic paid tribute to his late friend, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant with his t-shirt
Djokovic tearfully celebrates with his daughter Tara after beating Medvedev on Sunday
Daniil Medvedev, of Russia, reacts during a medical time out between sets against Djokovic
Against the rangy Russian No 3 seed Djokovic came through a match which was predictably marked out by rallies that mixed athleticism with attrition, and had the crowd gasping in disbelief. They took lumps out of each other from the baseline but, as is so often the case with Djokovic, he was the one who delivered when it most mattered.
Three hours and 17 minutes had been played when Medvedev struck a last forehand into the net. He was initially subdued in the moment of victory, but then wept as he went over to hug his daughter in the stands.
Djokovic had won nine out of their previous 14 meetings, although the most important of those was a defeat in this final two years ago, when the Russian emphatically blocked his bid to carry off the calendar Grand Slam. That made for another element of redemption.
Playing under the roof due to earlier showers, Medvedev should have been the most battle-hardened. His route to the final had been much the tougher, and included taking out Carlos Alcaraz in the semi-finals.
Djokovic celebrates with his daughter Tara following his win over Russia’s Daniil Medvedev
Novak Djokovic is the US Open champion once again after beating Daniil Medvedev
A classic feature of the Medvedev game is the way he stands so far back in the court, and from the off it was clear that Djokovic wanted to make sure that he could not simply retreat into that comfort zone.
Dropshots are an obvious tactic, although the Russian is so quick at moving forward they need to be executed to perfection. Another ploy Djokovic was keen to show off early on was coming in after his serve to volley, with so much time and angle afforded by his opponent’s receiving position.
He pounced on a sluggish opening service game from Medvedev to break straightaway and held on by being prepared to carve out the long rallies that were inevitably going to materialize.
Lacking the consistency shown in previous rounds, Medvedev faced two set points at 2-5 which he rescued by pushing his opponent deep into the corners.
Djokovic climbs over the net to check on Daniil Medvedev, who laid on the court after a rally
Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, offers Daniil Medvedev, of Russia, a hand up after a rally
Djokovic made no mistake the following game, refusing to crack in a marathon exchange that allowed him another set point, which the Russian sent long.
Medvedev then stopped the match for six minutes while he went off for a ludicrously long toilet break, but when battle was rejoined he was still struggling to stay up with his opponent, who forced a break point at 3-3.
Djokovic melodramatically dropped to the floor after one grueling point as they probed each other’s defenses, with Medvedev improving. In the second set’s 12-minute eighth game the Serb saved a break point with a wonderful half-volley picked up from the floor to stay level.
Medvedev was now right back in it and forced a set point at 6-5, but instead of going down the line struck a backhand at his opponent that he controlled for a winner.
Facing Djokovic in a tiebreak is a thankless task but the Russian had his chances. Having seen his 3-1 lead translate to 5-5, Medvedev struck his forehand return wide and then, anticlimactically, dumped a backhand in the net.
At 104 minutes long it had been the longest set of the tournament, and longer than the wins both men had in their first rounds.
Djokovic reacts during a break in play against Daniil Medvedev on Sunday in Queens
As the Serb went off to change his sweat-soaked clothes, he did so in the knowledge that his hard court record in Grand Slams was 126-0 when leading two sets to love. His opponent was left to stew on his chair, knowing that he had created enough openings to level.
Djokovic’s energy levels had undulated through the second set of this marathon, occasionally going down on his haunches after some of the more brutal exchanges, but there is nothing like the sight of the winning post to pep a player up.
Confidently beginning the third, at 2-1 he forced what looked to be the decisive break by jamming forehands into Medvedev, whose legs were starting to look less co-operative.
Twice he got him off balance to draw backhands that flew over the baseline, the second of them at 15-40.
Then came an unexpected lapse, Djokovic playing his loosest series of points to hand the break straight back.
The war of attrition had been taking its toll, and the overall level of the match dropped as it was Medvedev’s turn to hand out a few presents, and three breaks of serve saw the Serb move to 4-2, from where he would not be overhauled.