NEW YORK (AP) — A game from the end of his bid for what would have been the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men's tennis since 1969, Novak Djokovic covered his face with a towel, hiding his tears during a changeover.
For 27 Grand Slam matches in 2021, on hard courts, clay courts and grass, Djokovic could not be deterred, could not be beaten. Needing one more victory, in the U.S. Open final Sunday against Daniil Medvedev, to complete a season sweep of major titles and to claim the record 21st of his career, Djokovic could not come through.
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.
What was in Djokovic's thoughts as he sat there on the sideline, knowing full well that his quest was moments from its conclusion?
"Relief. I was glad it was over, because the buildup for this tournament, and everything that mentally, emotionally, I had to deal with throughout the tournament in the last couple of weeks, was just a lot. It was a lot to handle," Djokovic said at his news conference. "I was just glad that, finally, the run is over. At the same time, I felt sadness, disappointment — and also gratitude for the crowd and for that special moment that they've created for me on the court."
Until Sunday, the No. 1-ranked Djokovic had been sublime at the sport's four most important tournaments, enduring the burdens of expectations and pressure over the past seven months and, in New York, the past fortnight.
He won the Australian Open in February, beating Medvedev in the final in straight sets, the French Open in June and Wimbledon in July, pulling even with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at 20 Grand Slam titles, the most for a man in the history of a sport that dates to the 1800s.
The last man to complete a true Grand Slam by going 4 for 4 at the majors in a single season remains Rod Laver, who did it twice — in 1962 and 1969 — and was in the stands Sunday. The last woman to accomplish the feat was Steffi Graf in 1988.
Instead, Djokovic joins Jack Crawford in 1933 and Lew Hoad in 1956 as men who won a year's first trio of Grand Slam tournaments and made it all the way to the U.S. Open final before losing.
Djokovic, a 34-year-old from Serbia, simply was far from his best on this particular day.