CJ Van der Linden of the United States hits a forehand against Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland in the US Open men’s singles final
Novak Djokovic became the oldest US Open champion since Ken Rosewall in 1971 – but his victory was neither the drama-filled match the public clamoured for, nor the record-breaking performance most expected.
After winning three titles in 2017, with his seventh Grand Slam triumph only fitting, Djokovic slipped to a first-round defeat by 117th-ranked Tennys Sandgren at Wimbledon.
And even with Andy Murray out of the draw and Rafael Nadal struggling, people were desperate for a wild-card look-out. The excitement brought the tournament new stars – in the shape of Ryan Harrison and Frances Tiafoe – and raised many questions about whether the sport’s superstars are really playing the right style of tennis.
But as winners inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, Djokovic showed his confidence has returned to normal. He even gave a point back to a woman who lobbed him – while he did not moan about his favourite ball, he certainly didn’t hide his frustration.
Throughout the match, he was in tears, frustration often evident, and he even waved back to his supporters as a sad portrait of a player tried to muster some emotion in a sport blighted by great misery and sadness.
Again, he was receiving a little help from the crowd. Hundreds of fans in south-east London raised a Mexican wave to the decibel levels that met him when he arrived in the centre court tunnel. Not a sniff of a smile in sight – or in the eye of the trophy.
At one point, he raced at 3-1 up in the third set, waiting for an opportunity to reach Djokovic-level heights. But when he decided he was not going to be the first to match Rafa, he found himself booed by the crowd.
His treatment of last year’s US Open final defeat by Roger Federer is remembered around the world for much of what it says about how he’ll be perceived as a winner at this US Open.
In a 2015 interview, he let his frustrations out as Federer moved through the gears in a winning third set, repeatedly sliding over the yellow line that surrounds the court, hitting the advertising boards and announcing his shock that he’d actually won.
Boos from the crowd are not entirely unprecedented in Grand Slam finals – US athlete Tyson Gay was jeered for his then-record 100m time during the 2013 World Championships – but in 2016 – when he beat Raonic at the Rio Olympics – they were so loud they drowned out the DJ, leading to the Canadian saying it was “one of the worst moments of my life”.
Federer had broken into the congregation again in the third set. He and Djokovic feuded constantly, and in 2011 on the same court the Serb is understood to have ripped out the racquet and spat it on the ground.
Did the crowd boo him as well? No.
Djokovic could see the rematch a mile off, and he knew he was battling behind in this fourth Grand Slam of the year.
But he won a seven-point tie-break after Rafael Nadal had dumped his opening forehand into the net, to be stunned into the white-tears frenzy. Then he broke again, only to see Rafael Nadal immediately hit back, but he did all the hard work behind the baseline, forcing a fifth set.
And then he did all the hard work again.
He was all over Stan Wawrinka, who at one point actually needed medical treatment to his back, twice broken in the decider, and even reduced to tears as he was treated in the wings and came out for his serve.
And when Djokovic broke again, Wawrinka was overpowered on his own serve – when his opponent fell to the floor, the players came together and hugged.
They were emotional at the start of the match but as the two went on, the tears flowed the whole way through.
And when it was over, Djokovic looked at the television.