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Novak Djokovic no match for Daniil Medvedev on this day as Grand Slam quest falls short at U.S. Open

Novak Djokovic has a habit of throwing away first sets as if they are disposable diapers, so there was no reason on Sunday evening to think this would be any different. He dropped the opening set quickly enough inside Ashe Stadium to Daniil Medvedev, and you waited for the inevitable turnaround.

But this was different. The comeback missed the bus, never arrived. Djokovic’s legs were heavy all night, after more than 17 hours on court in the tournament. Maybe the weight of the occasion grew too burdensome. He was not a robot, not a human backboard, after all.

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Medvedev rose to the occasion, as no other young player of his generation had managed for too many years in the best-of-five majors. The Russian accomplished the impossible, beat the unbeatable Djokovic in the final of the U.S. Open, 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.

Nothing goes right for Novak Djokovic as his attempt at calendar Grand Slam comes up empty in Flushing on Sunday.
Nothing goes right for Novak Djokovic as his attempt at calendar Grand Slam comes up empty in Flushing on Sunday. (Andrew Schwartz/For New York Daily News)

In winning his first major, Medvedev played brilliantly, strategically, changing angles and speeds while out-baselining the ninja master at his own game. Medvedev is a hardcourt wizard. He stands so far behind the baseline it’s hard to figure how he can cover the court, vertically. Yet, somehow, he does. His nerves wobbled only a bit, near the end, when he struck double faults on championship points. Medvedev composed himself, though, finished the job. He dropped to the ground awkwardly on his side, with typical quirkiness, and stuck out his tongue in disbelief at the breakthrough upset.

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It was, Medvedev said, a “dead fish celebration,” inspired by the FIFA video game.

“I wanted to make it legendary, for people to laugh, for friends to laugh,” he said. “I got hurt a little bit. It’s not easy on hardcourts.”

In the end, Daniil Medvedev is the last man standing at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
In the end, Daniil Medvedev is the last man standing at Arthur Ashe Stadium. (Andrew Schwartz/For New York Daily News)

For now, Djokovic remains tied with Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer at 20 major titles. He sobbed beneath a white crying towel at the end, exhausted by the chase and by the rare defeat. After a 52-year wait on the men’s tour, once again, there would be no single-season Grand Slam.

Nobody said this would be easy, or even possible. Djokovic’s tough draw was wearying. We had seen no less a player than Serena Williams fall apart on the same court in 2015, failing in her quest for a one-season Slam.

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Djokovic was suddenly not Superman, or even Gumby. He found himself a half-step late setting up for volleys. When it was done, Medvedev, apologized on court during the awards ceremony.

“For me, you are the greatest tennis player in history,” Medvedev said, though he later hedged a bit out of respect for other stars.

Djokovic thanked the fans and told them he was “the happiest man alive” because of their hospitality. In the interview room, he admitted to some disappointment.

“I was just below par with my game,” Djokovic said, after his 27-match streak in majors was snapped. “My legs were not there. I was trying. I did my best. I made a lot of unforced errors. I had no serve, really. I was below par with everything, to be honest. Just one of these days where unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be.”

The Flushing Meadow fans desperately hoped to witness tennis history. They chanted, “Novak,” and even gave him a standing ovation when he smashed his racket in the fourth game of the second set. On the final changeover of the match, Djokovic pounded his heart and smiled at the spectators.

Novak Djokovic smashes his racquet in frustration as the final doesn't go his way.
Novak Djokovic smashes his racquet in frustration as the final doesn't go his way. (Andrew Schwartz/For New York Daily News)

By then, it was a done deal. Djokovic had been broken in the fifth game of the second set, when he was unable to manage a shoelace volley. The decisive break arrived in the first game of the third set, as Djokovic misfired a long backhand after a lengthy rally.

Djokovic had not given the crowd, “the best version of myself,” as he had hoped. He could never figure out Medvedev’s serves, and he couldn’t out-patient him on the baseline. Medvedev, 25, is that tennis unicorn, a 6-6 giant with the quickness of a much smaller man. He’s also incredibly smart. He can surprise an audience with an shrewd quip, in several languages, sharp as a pinpoint drop shot.

Medvedev studied math and physics at a specialized Moscow school before focusing on tennis. His dad was a computer engineer. His upper-middle-class back story isn’t as compelling as that of Djokovic, whose family sacrificed everything for its prodigy.

Since he showed a remarkable talent for smacking around a tennis ball at age 4, Djokovic was always the golden child in Belgrade. His father, Srdjan, a struggling restaurant owner, pushed all his chips into the middle of the table; bet them on his oldest son. Money was borrowed, for Novak’s coaches and training. The family relocated whenever necessary.

“Only Novak mattered,” Srdjan told Newsweek, five years ago. “All of us — even his own family and his coaches — were unimportant.”

The coaches came and went, the riches and the trophies arrived in bulk. Not every pushy tennis parent enjoys such a payoff, but Srdjan’s wager returned tens of millions. Novak embraced the burden of his own talents. He put together teams of trainers, psychologists, nutritionists. His commitment to such details was reminiscent of another player, in another time.

“It’s a little bit what I noticed with Martina Navratilova,” Pam Shriver said. “He looks at every possible little thing that could tinker with his game.”

All the planning, programming, and stretching of muscles were not enough on Sunday, when Djokovic finally fell short. He remains tied with Federer and Nadal — at least until the Australian Open. Then Gumby goes for history again.

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