isPerhaps it was inevitable that Novak Djokovic’s icy relationship with the US Open audience would thaw at some point. That he would one day receive the appreciation he was so often denied in New York.
That resolution finally came Sunday night in unexpected form at a crowded Arthur Ashe stadium, after a tournament defined by the unpredictable delivered one final curve ball.
Just minutes after Russian Daniil Medvedev spoke of the performance of a lifetime to turn down Djokovic’s candidacy for a 21st major tournament and the first grand slam of a calendar year in men’s tennis in 52 years, the No.1 Mondial took the microphone and bared his soul to the 25,703 spectators.
“I would like to say that tonight, even though I didn’t win the game, my heart is filled with joy and I am the happiest man in the world, because you made me feel very special. You touched my soul, ”said a foggy-eyed Djokovic to the packed house at the trophy ceremony. “I’ve never felt like this in New York, honestly. I never felt that way. I love you. Thank you very much for your support. I love you and I will see you soon.
The Serbian’s emotional exposure after the shock defeat echoed the rare betrayal of physical vulnerability that preceded him. Djokovic entered as the first player in 132 years – since Quincy Shaw at the 1889 U.S. Championships – to reach the final of a major tournament after winning four games in a set along the way . But while this trend on the brink was presented on approach as another indicator of Djokovic’s inflexible mental steel, it also meant that he had entered Sunday’s game after spending nearly six more hours. on the field in the tournament than an opponent nearly a decade his junior.
Djokovic has always been at his best when he got out of an emergency situation, as during his response after two sets against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Roland-Garros final only three months ago, but this times his 34-year-old body did not comply. “My legs weren’t there,” he later admitted.
Since his rise from the shadows of the sport’s two most popular players, Djokovic has long been accustomed to the partisan crowds lining up against him and taking a stance of apology after winning emotionally charged matches – and nowhere more often than ‘before the armband, well-lubricated hordes in Queens, where he was booed for the first time off the field after an infamous 2008 victory over Andy Roddick. For years he remained for many a permanent stranger: the third man who disturbed the beloved Federer-Nadal duopoly. Not since Ivan Lendl had one of the true figures in the sports hall of fame who seemed to be so unloved beyond his main supporters.
But the long-awaited show of appreciation inside Ashe on Sunday brought up scenes of Martina Navratilova, whose tearful remarks after a loss to Tracy Austin in the 1981 US Open final, marked a change. permanent in his relationship with fans in New York.
Indeed, six years after a US Open final where the Flushing Meadows gallery was so exaggerated in their support for Federer that they applauded Djokovic’s faults and service errors and repeatedly called between his firsts. and second serves, it was Medvedev’s turn to endure their wrath. as he attempted to serve the match against an older statesman.
Even when Djokovic retires as statistically the greatest male player of all time – which is almost a certainty at this point – the scars of Sunday’s fall in the final hurdle will last a long time. But in the calm moments following his first defeat in 28 Grand Slam appearances this year, the best player in the world was able to take comfort in the support he received.
“Of course, part of me is very sad,” Djokovic said. “It’s hard to swallow, this loss, I mean, considering everything that was at stake.
“But on the other hand, I felt something that I have never felt in my life here in New York. The crowd made me very special. They pleasantly surprised me. I didn’t know, I wasn’t expecting anything, but the amount of support, energy and love I received from the crowd is something I will remember forever. I mean, this is the reason for the change I just ripped apart. The emotion, the energy was so strong. I mean, it’s as strong as winning 21 Grand Slam tournaments. That’s how I felt, honestly. I felt very, very special.
“They touched my heart, honestly. Of course, at the end of the day you want to win. You are a professional athlete. These are the kind of moments that you cherish. These are bonds that you make with people that will last a very long time. “
When asked to describe his emotions as he collapsed in his chair after losing a game loaded with a bigger story than any of the 1,175 that came before him, Djokovic was on point. . “Relief,” he said. “I was just happy the race was finally over. At the same time, I felt sadness, disappointment and also gratitude for the audience and for this special moment that they created for me on the pitch.