A match from the end of his bid for what would have been the calendar's first Grand Slam tournament in men's tennis since 1969, Novak Djokovic covered his face with a towel, hiding his tears during the changeover.
In 27 Grand Slam matches in 2021, on hard courts, clay courts and grass, Djokovic is unbeatable. Needing one more victory, in Sunday's US Open final against Daniil Medvedev, to complete a season sweep for major titles and claim his 21st career record, Djokovic couldn't pull it off.
Outplayed by someone using a similar style to his own, Djokovic came up just short of those two historic milestones, losing 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to first-time major champion Medvedev at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
No.1 ranked Djokovic had been sublime in the sport's top four tournaments, enduring the burdens of expectations and pressure for the past seven months and, in New York, the past two weeks. He beat Medvedev in the Australian Open final in February, then added titles at the French Open in June and Wimbledon in July.
He made mistakes, 38 inadvertent mistakes in all. He couldn't convert the chance of a break until it was too small, too late, going just 1 for 6. He also showed frustration, destroying his racket by hitting it three times against the court after one point, drawing boos from the crowd of 25,703 and a code violation from chair umpire Damien Dumusois.
List of players to defeat Novak Djokovic in a Grand Slam in 2021:— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 12, 2021
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Much of Djokovic's troubles had to do with No. 2 ranked Medvedev, who used his 6-foot-6(1.98meter) frame to chase everything and respond with seemingly effortless groundstrokes, in the same way. that Djokovic wears down foes, and delivered pinpoint serving. Medvedev won 20 of his first 23 service points, forming a pattern.
He finished with 16 aces and 38 winners in total, 11 wins more than Djokovic. After overcoming several double faults at match point, Medvedev finally finished the job, then toppled over to the court on his side.
Djokovic reached the 31st Grand Slam final, equaling the record of six victories on the hard court at Flushing Meadows. But he couldn't get the last thing he needed.
He remains tied with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal with 20 major titles.
And the last man to complete a true Grand Slam going 4-4 at the majors in a single season remains Rod Laver, who did it twice, in 1962 and 1969, and was in the stands on Sunday. The last woman to achieve this feat was Steffi Graf in 1988.
Instead, Djokovic joined Jack Crawford in 1933 and Lew Hoad in 1956 as men who won the first three Grand Slam tournaments over a year and reached the U.S. Open final before losing.
Djokovic came out a bit cold Sunday, double faulted in each of his first two service games and mixed enough groundstroke fouls bowing his head or rolling his eyes after some that 12 minutes, Medvedev was a point from a second break and a 3-0 lead. Djokovic eventually used a couple of aces at 117 mph and 124 mph to hold there, but it was Medvedev who stole the show in the early going.
It was the fifth consecutive match in which Djokovic lost the first set, and 11th in Grand Slam play this year, but unlike other cases, he was unable to win again.
This moment though pic.twitter.com/dgvqLMpdBv— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 12, 2021
Djokovic got to love-40 in Medvedev’s first service game of the second set but did not come through on any of those break points. On the third, Djokovic put a sliced backhand in the net, then pounded his racket against his left thigh — one, two, three, four times, perhaps as disappointed in his footwork as anything.
Thousands of fans tried to reinforce him by chanting his nickname "No-Le! No-Le! No-Le!" After some of Medvedev's mistakes, some in the stands would applaud, considered poor form in tennis and repeatedly admonished with a “please” from Dumusois.