Sports writer Will Rogers assesses where Novak Djokovic’s career is headed following his loss to Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final
As the New York crowd cheered for Novak Djokovic following his US Open final defeat to Daniil Medvedev, the emotion was clearly visible on the great Serb’s face, a legend perhaps finally gaining the public adoration that he so clearly deserves. Whilst British tennis is looking forward to the future of young starlet Emma Raducanu, we must not forget Djokovic’s phenomenal 2021, coming within one match of the first calendar Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969.
Following his dominant 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory, Medvedev proudly held the trophy aloft, his maiden Grand Slam, and proclaimed Djokovic to be “The Greatest tennis player in history”. This title has been debated for years and will continue until the “Big Three” eventually retire, yet Djokovic’s 2021 will only help his position in the pantheon of tennis legends.
Djokovic entered the year with seventeen Grand Slams, and is often regarded as the greatest returner and most relentless player ever, yet he still craves the public adoration of his rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. With Federer heading towards retirement and injuries seemingly catching up with Rafa, it seems inevitable that Djokovic will end his career as the greatest winner that the sport has ever seen.
Djokovic began the year in style, winning the Australian Open for a record ninth time in February, cruising to victory in the final over Medvedev in straight sets. Despite losing in Monte Carlo and at his home event in Belgrade, reaching the Italian Open final, before a close loss to Nadal, filled the Serb with confidence before the French Open. He had some hiccups in getting through the rounds in Paris, before defeating Nadal in a minor upset, with the thirteen-time champion losing at Roland Garros for only the third time in his career. The final was similarly tricky for the Serb, needing a comeback from two sets down to beat the Greek fifth seed, Stefanos Tsitsipas.
He then headed to Wimbledon as the overwhelming favourite yet lost his opening set to Brit, Jack Draper. He stormed through the rest of the tournament, winning his twentieth Grand Slam, to take him level with Rafa and Roger, with many fans seeing this as a great way for the Golden triumvirate to retire. At this point he had won eight out of the last twelve Grand Slams and with the Olympic Games looming, the only major tournament that the Serb has never won, the Golden Slam was looking more and more likely.
Djokovic had highlighted the Olympics as one of his major targets for the year and seemed on course for the title with four quick victories. However, in the semi-final, he fell apart against an inspired Alexander Zverev, before crumbling in the bronze medal match against Pablo Carreno Busta, leaving his Golden Slam hopes in tatters. Whilst Novak may have felt disappointed by this defeat, the lack of a gold medal will not affect his legacy, with Federer having never claimed Olympic singles glory either.
In New York, Djokovic was still the odds-on favourite to complete the Grand Slam, yet never looked comfortable in front of the returning crowds. In the final, Djokovic was swept aside by the Russian Medvedev, but in defeat he finally witnessed the public support that he has so dearly craved throughout his many years on the tour. Whilst Federer and Nadal receive public love wherever they go, Djokovic has sometimes been portrayed as the villain, the efficient, clinical destroyer who has swept his way to Grand Slam after Grand Slam.
As Djokovic fought off the tears, his immense success of 2021 should have been at the forefront of his mind, yet with a few defeats towards the end of the year and Father Time sneaking up behind him, the competitor inside him wants to win everything before he eventually hangs up his racquet. In the final few games, with Djokovic almost acknowledging his inevitable defeat, you could see a visible shift in the crowd’s reaction, with love for a great champion finally flooding through.
Novak still has a few good years in him before the next generation eventually sweep through and crowds around the world should shower this great champion with the love that he deserves. Throughout his career, although not as serene as Federer or as passionate as Nadal, Djokovic has shown love and respect to everyone, and tennis fans are only now realising that these great champions cannot go on forever.
With Roger, Nadal, Djokovic and Serena Williams all heading towards the twilight of their careers, tennis is crying out for a new star. Yet these flames are not extinguished just yet. Tennis fans must adore Novak for everything that he has won, and all he has done for the sport as he may just retire as the greatest of them all.
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