Novak in NYC: '21 Slam, 21 Majors?

Novak Djokovic is searching for a Grand Slam, and a little love, at the US Open

By Peter Bodo Sep 05, 2021
Novak in NYC: '21 Slam, 21 Majors?

By the time Novak Djokovic lost the biggest match of his career, he'd already won over the biggest audience of his life

By Steve Tignor Sep 13, 2021
Novak in NYC: '21 Slam, 21 Majors?

To beat Novak Djokovic, Alexander Zverev said, you need to be perfect. He was right—and one mistake cost him

By Steve Tignor Sep 11, 2021
Novak in NYC: '21 Slam, 21 Majors?

Six years ago, no one thought Serena Williams would be defeated at the US Open. But along came Roberta Vinci, and down went a calendar-year Slam

By Steve Tignor Sep 09, 2021
Novak in NYC: '21 Slam, 21 Majors?

Jenson Brooksby and Novak Djokovic gave us a bit of everything. But it was one shot that changed the momentum in the Serb's favor

By Steve Tignor Sep 07, 2021
Novak in NYC: '21 Slam, 21 Majors?

Griekspoor, heckler no match for Novak Djokovic, now five wins away from completing calendar-year Slam at US Open

By Joel Drucker Sep 03, 2021
Novak in NYC: '21 Slam, 21 Majors?

Holger Rune has his moment, but Novak Djokovic wins in four sets, leaving him six wins away from tennis history

By Steve Tignor Sep 01, 2021
Novak in NYC: '21 Slam, 21 Majors?

A timeline of Novak Djokovic's path to ultimate greatness

By Peter Bodo Aug 29, 2021
Novak in NYC: '21 Slam, 21 Majors?

Like a fine gluten-free wine, Novak Djokovic seems to only get better with age

By Joel Drucker Aug 27, 2021
Novak in NYC: '21 Slam, 21 Majors?

Meet Don Budge, Novak Djokovic’s (calendar-year?) Grand Slam ancestor

By Joel Drucker Aug 27, 2021

UNSTRUNG: The year of Novak Djokovic

Advertising

NEW YORK—Novak Djokovic found himself in a jam midway through the third set of his third-round US Open match on Saturday with the surprisingly pugnacious Kei Nishikori. So when he smacked one of his signature down-the-line backhand winners to save a break point, he trotted along the sideline, index finger cocking his ear forward, trying to incite the crowd on his behalf.

Once again, it turned out to be a tall order.

Djokovic is here in Gotham hoping to do something that hasn’t been accomplished by a male tennis pro since 1969, something only five players—two men and three women—have accomplished in the entire 100-plus year history of the game. You would think the fans here are popping Tums every time Djokovic smacks a double fault, gnawing at their fingernails with every unforced error. Who doesn’t want to see history being made by someone who, in eight days time, might have confirmed his status as the greatest champion tennis has ever produced?

But that’s not the case. The fans here are a volatile, sensation-seeking lot. They like to get behind the underdog; that’s certainly the most appealing part of their collective nature. But their love for Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal has kept them withholding their affection for Djokovic. They have consistently denied him, even as he pedaled as fast as he could for years to catch up with his august rivals. And all that time, Djokovic has tried, sometimes heavy-handedly, to win over the fans. Djokovic and the US Open crowd hasn’t exactly been a mixture of oil-and-water, but it’s close.

“Novak, are you feeling the love?” ESPN’s Darren Cahill asked Djokovic on the court, immediately after the Serbian star dispatched Nishikori in a ragged, see-sawing four-set struggle that lasted three hours and 32 minutes. (6-7 [4], 6-3, 6-3, 6-2)

Djokovic paused for a beat to appreciate the cheers of the fans before he replied, “Right now I am. Thank you so much.”

Djokovic asked for more crowd support in his third-round match against Nishikori—and, for the most part, he got it.

Djokovic asked for more crowd support in his third-round match against Nishikori—and, for the most part, he got it.

It was a different story while the match was still undecided, but that’s nothing new for Djokovic. When he was asked about his relationship with the crowd a few days earlier, he said, “Obviously you always wish to have the crowd behind you, but it's not always possible. That's all I can say. I mean, I don't know. I've been focusing on myself and what I need to do. I guess I have to just see how it feels on the court and try to keep it together. That's all I can do.”

Djokovic has been handling the irritations that accrue with his standing in the imagination of the tennis public with great tact and forbearance. At Wimbledon, in his epic Wimbledon 2019 win over Federer (the first ever decided at the All England Club by a tiebreaker), he kept telling himself that the fans were shouting his name when they repeatedly chanted, “Roger, Roger, Roger.” The treatment Djokovic gets may not be outright hostile, but indifference can be a major irritant. It may even make you paranoid.

During Djokovic’s first match at the Open, the crowd went all in on his talented young opponent, Holger Rune. They were soon chanting his name—just the surname; can you imagine?—“Rune, Rune,. Rune.”

“I thought they were booing,” Djokovic admitted after he ran his young challenger into the ground in four sets. “I don't know, it was not an ideal atmosphere for me to tell you that. But I've been in these particular atmospheres before, so I knew how to handle it.”

Djokovic came to New York to offer the fans a special gift, a chance to witness the denouement of a rare Grand Slam quest. They acted at times as if they would prefer the cheap thrills afforded by a major upset. It’s a fickle, Roman coliseum-style crowd that can turn a thumbs-up into a thumbs-down in the blink of an eye. The players go out of their way to declare what a “great” crowd it is. Daniil Medvedev can tell you what happens when you deviate from the party line.

Two years ago, Medvedev angered the crowd during his third-round match by rudely snatching a towel from the hands of a ball person. The crowd showered him in boos and catcalls, but the emerging Russian star stood his ground, surreptitiously flipped the fans the bird, and later taunted them by claiming in his on-court interview that “I won because of you.”

Those longing for tennis to feature a good, old-fashioned villain again saw their dream shattered. Within hours, Medvedev turned contrite. He apologized and cozied up to the fans in his ensuing matches. Thanks to a rapid re-education, he was soon back in their good graces.

Advertising

Leylah Fernandez and Carlos Alcaraz, two 18-year-olds that toppled No. 3 seeds, have quickly become fan favorites in Flushing Meadows.

Leylah Fernandez and Carlos Alcaraz, two 18-year-olds that toppled No. 3 seeds, have quickly become fan favorites in Flushing Meadows.

The New York crowd can be intimidating. It knows how to bully and taunt. But it’s also capable of lifting a player to superhuman heights when it throws its support behind a lucky, chosen one. The fans in Flushing routinely take gifted young players to their bosom, and that can make all the difference in the world in a match. At least two 18-year olds once again demonstrated that just days ago.

Leylah Fernandez created the greatest upset of the tournament thus far when she knocked off No. 3 seed Noami Osaka. Wide-eyed and energetic, Fernandez said afterward: “Having the crowd there supporting me and backing me up after every point, it's amazing. It gave me the energy to keep fighting, to keep working and keep running for those balls that she hit. I was just glad that I was able to put on a show for everyone that came to watch.”

Those are the words New York fans like to hear. They are a self-mythologizing lot, but it’s still nice when someone else tells them how great they are.

The other beneficiary was Carlos Alcaraz, who dismissed Stefanos Tsitsipas, the mens’ No. 3 seed, in a thrilling five-set match featuring a final-set tiebreaker. Alcaraz said after the win that he had not expected such fervent crowd support: “It surprised me, really. . .I didn't think [expect] that. I think without the crowd I couldn't have the opportunity to play a great fifth set and be able to beat Stefanos. I think the crowd was really amazing. I really loved it.”

Djokovic has been handling the irritations that accrue with his standing in the imagination of the tennis public with great tact and forbearance.

Djokovic has been handling the irritations that accrue with his standing in the imagination of the tennis public with great tact and forbearance.

Advertising

Djokovic, who has sparred with the crowd at times, tried a slightly different tack on Saturday. He bordered on the playful a time or two, as he tried to rally the crowd to become more supportive of his labors to move one step closer to a historic achievement. With Nishikori out of the way, only four matches now stand in the way of a Djokovic Grand Slam.

“As he (Djokovic) gets closer, like to the quarters and semis, this will be the most pro-Djokovic crowd he has ever experienced,” ESPN analyst James Blake predicted.

That would certainly be a change.