The image that abides from Sunday’s men’s final will be of Juan Martin del Potro, doubled over with his hands on his knees, after another punishing rally had slipped out of his grasp.
Del Potro brought all his renowned artillery to this showdown. But his best efforts simply bounced off Novak Djokovic’s defensive shield, as if del Potro were a barbarian casting spears at one of those Roman tortoise formations that conquered the ancient world.
Djokovic is the greatest defender this sport has ever seen – Blockovic, more like – and he was playing in conditions that might have been designed specifically for him.
The US Open’s organisers redesigned the courts this year, replacing the asphalt under the rubberised coating with a slower concrete surface, and adding extra sand to the blue paint on top. The result is to take a little extra zip off each shot – the same zip that might have given del Potro’s piledrivers a chance of bypassing the Djokovic defensive wall.
Despite these helpful tweaks – and the cool change that has finally driven the sweltering air from New York – Djokovic did not have things all his own way on Arthur Ashe Stadium yesterday. He, too, looked to be running low on fuel after an intense 20-minute service game in the middle of the second set.
At this stage, Djokovic’s equanimity was being rocked by the hugely partisan crowd inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, which kept the upper bowl reverberating with chants of “Delllpo, Delllpo”. And a couple of his usually metronomic forehands skewed into the sidelines as Del Potro made a determined comeback from 1-3 down to level the set.
This was Del Potro’s best spell, as he slugged his gigantic forehand with the whirling arm of a heavy-metal guitarist, and even mixed in a few devastating backhand winners up the line. This was a shot we thought we would never see again when he reported to the surgeon's table for four wrist operations, three of them on the left wrist that provides the spin on that double-fisted backhand.
As Djokovic scampered left and right, deep behind the baseline, his shoes squeaking louder than a hospital dinner trolley, it seemed that Del Potro had him on the ropes. There were three break points in that long game, and almost too many deuces to count. But the final punch simply refused to land. No-one ducks and dives better than Djokovic when the assault is coming. In the end, he squeaked home 7-4 in the tie-breaker of a set that lasted fully 95 minutes – longer than the controversial women’s final of Saturday night.
There was a similar pattern in the third set as del Potro again slipped a break behind, and again came back to level. Crucially, though, he was never able to establish a real advantage at any stage of the match, instead straining to keep in touch with his ruthlessly efficient opponent.
Progress was slow for Djokovic, who needed fully 3hr 15min to close out his 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 win, but it never seemed in real doubt. The margins here were small enough that hot temperatures, of the kind which predominated in the first ten days of the tournament, might have made a difference – at least to the number of sets. But you always felt that Djokovic had the answers. Even if he was less ambitious in his groundstrokes, he was more proactive in his court-positioning, coming in no fewer than 37 times to del Potro’s 17, and volleying with the lethal accuracy that he developed under Boris Becker’s guidance.
This was Djokovic’s second major of the year, and his 14th overall, equalling the record that Pete Sampras set. What a turnaround from the early part of the season, when he seemed listless and almost uninterested in the sport that made him a multi-millionaire.
The turning point came in April, when he reunited with his old mentor Marian Vajda, and the coaching experiments with Andre Agassi and Radek Stepanek came to an end. From that moment on, Djokovic has been on an upward trajectory, and this victory opens the possibility that he could go on another long grand-slam winning streak to match the three straight titles he won in 2011-12, or even the four he won in 2015-16. Certainly he is no longer out of the picture in the wider race, contested also by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, to finish with the greatest number of majors.
As for del Potro, he wept into his towel at the conclusion. But this has been a heartwarming tournament for the 2009 winner here, who has finally put all those injury worries behind him. He will be a contender in Australia, for sure, but he may have to get past Djokovic to win it.
"Support of my loved ones [was what got me here]. My kids and family and support team that has been through this all with me. When I had my surgery this year I could understand what Juan Martin went through. But you learn from adversity when you're down. I tried to take the best out of myself from those moments.
"I was hoping Pete [Sampras] would be hear tonight. I love you. You're my idol.
"I would like to congratulate Juan Martin what he's done in last five years. Having faith and belief that he will be fighting for grand slams. And I know that he will be back here with the winner's title, I really do.
"It felt like a football match with the Argentina fans here, and the Serbian fans here."
"It's not easy to speak right now, but I love you too guys (the crowd). I'm so happy to be playing in the final against this magnificent idol. He is one of my friends on tour and one of the players I love to see well. I'm happy for him and his team and you deserve to win.
"I never give up during my wrist problems. I was trying to face all my injuries to be here again and got it again after nine years, which is amazing for me. US Open is my favourite tournament."
Del Potro is then given the chance to thank his fans in Spanish, which is surely a response to the absolutely abominable way he was treated when he won the tournament nine years ago (See below).
That has to rank as one of the best performances of Djokovic's career. The way he nullified Del Potro's power and was able to impose himself was stunning to watch.
Since the start of 2011, a male player has won back-to-back slams on six occasions.
On all six of those occasions, that player was Novak Djokovic.
Game, set and match! Djokovic defeats Del Potro 6-3, 7-6, 6-3
A dismal drop shot from Djokovic starts the game to find himself down 0-15. Del Potro then thwacks a backhand wide for 15-15, and slices a backhand sadly into the net for 30-15. Djokovic nets a backhand of his own to make it 30-30, but a zippy forehand winner brings up championship point at 40-30. And he takes it with a smash!
That's it - after 3hr 16 min, Djokovic wins his third US Open title and 14th grand-slam title - moving him joint-third with Pete Sampras in the all-time list.
Djokovic falls over in celebration and shares a warm embrace with Del Potro at the net.
Djokovic* 6-3, 7-6, 5-3 Del Potro (*next server) - Djokovic breaks
Oh dear! A forehand error and a double fault - Del Potro's first of the match - hand Djokovic two break points at 15-40. And he only needs one! Yet another lung-busting exchange ends with Del Potro pulling a backhand wide.
Djokovic will serve for the match!
Djokovic 6-3, 7-6, 4-3 Del Potro* (*next server)
Djokovic makes a mess of a forehand and finds himself down 15-30. Big alarm bells ringing. But Del Potro miscues a pretty easy forehand, and then nets another forehand for 40-30. Djokovic makes him pay by completing the hold with a forehand winner. Del Potro has had his chances tonight but too many have gone begging.
Djokovic* 6-3, 7-6, 3-3 Del Potro (*next server)
Well, well, well. Djokovic looks a little zoned out this game, and Del Potro holds easily to 15. Are we witnessing a momentum shift like the one in the second set?
Djokovic 6-3, 7-6, 3-2 Del Potro* (*next server) - Del Potro breaks back
Del Potro thunders away a couple of forehands to move up 15-30 and remind Djokovic that he ain't going anywhere. Djokovic responds well with a smash and a drop shot make it 40-30, but Del Potro rallies to force a break point after Djokovic nets a forehand. Djokovic is given his first time violation warning of the night. He keeps his cool, but his mood worsens considerably moments later as Del Potro chases down a drop shot and flicks away a volley to claim the break back!
We're back on serve in the third set.
Djokovic* 6-3, 7-6, 3-1 Del Potro (*next server) - Djokovic breaks
Unreal defence from Djokovic to somehow move to 0-30 as he chases down a Del Potro forehand and outfoxes his opponent with a low forehand pass at his opponent's feet. First sniff of a break Djokovic has had since the start of the second set. Del Potro battles back to 30-30, but Djokovic forces a break point with an excellent forehand-putaway volley combo. Del Potro saves it with a skidding first serve down the T. Djokovic then earns a second break point with some of the best defence you will ever see. Honestly that was absolutely unbelievable - Del Potro looked to have won the point about eight times but every time Djokovic somehow got the ball back in play. Djokovic screams with delight; Del Potro shakes his head in disbelief. And this time Djokovic takes the break-point chance! His return is like a heat-seeking missile, following Del Potro until he's in no position to hit the forehand effectively. He blares it long, and Djokovic has the break.
That is one of the best returning games you will ever see, and Djokovic is three games away from a 14th grand-slam title.
Action shot of Djokovic tonight pic.twitter.com/aYxd0zZU98
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) September 9, 2018
Djokovic 6-3, 7-6, 2-1 Del Potro* (*next server)
Very solid serving from Djokovic at the start of this second set. He opens up a 40-15 lead, and completes the hold to 30 with a steady smash.
Djokovic* 6-3, 7-6, 1-1 Del Potro (*next server)
Del Potro has already tried a couple of drop shots this set. Is he trying to quicken the points here? Djokovic chases this one down and then lobs his opponent for 0-15. Del Potro reels off the next four points though to wrap up a much-needed hold.
Djokovic 6-3, 7-6, 1-0 Del Potro* (*next server)
After a seven-minute break the players return to the court. Del Potro battles back from 30-0 to 30-30, but a brave second serve and a crazy point that ends with Del Potro pulling a forehand wide secure the hold for Djokovic.
Djokovic* 6-3, 7-6 Del Potro (*next server) - Second set Djokovic
Del Potro nets a forehand, and Djokovic wins the tie-break 7-4.
Djokovic is a set away from a 14th grand-slam title. Del Potro has left the court.
What a set that was. It lasted 95 minutes! By the way two of Djokovic's mini-breaks that tie-break came off a 129mph and 132 mph first serves. Unbelievable returning.
Second set tie-break: Djokovic* 6-4 Del Potro (*next server)
Del Potro drags a forehand wide after a gruelling exchange. It's two set points for Djokovic!
Second set tie-break: Djokovic* 5-4 Del Potro (*next server)
Del Potro slams a forehand into the net! Djokovic has two serves to take a two-sets lead.
Second set tie-break: Djokovic 4-4 Del Potro* (*next server)
Del Potro bangs down an ace that the machine calls a let. He's not happy but they replay the point and Djokovic nets a backhand anyway.
Second set tie-break: Djokovic 4-3 Del Potro* (*next server)
Del Potro slices a backhand pass wide, and Djokovic is back in front.
Second set tie-break: Djokovic* 3-3 Del Potro (*next server)
Djokovic flicks away a smash to level things up. Stunning level from both men at the moment.
Second set tie-break: Djokovic* 2-3 Del Potro (*next server)
Djokovic keeps himself alive with some brilliant defence, and he gets his reward when Del Potro nets a forehand. We're back on serve.
Second set tie-break: Djokovic 1-3 Del Potro* (*next server)
Stunning Del Potro forehand winner extends his lead.
Second set tie-break: Djokovic 1-2 Del Potro* (*next server)
A forehand pass from Del Potro puts him a mini-break ahead. All three points have gone against the server.
Second set tie-break: Djokovic* 1-1 Del Potro (*next server)
Djokovic nets a backhand and we're level again.
Second set tie-break: Djokovic* 1-0 Del Potro (*next server)
Stunning return from Djokovic off a 132mph serve eventually leads to Del Potro netting a forehand. An early mini-break for Djokovic in the tie-break.
Djokovic 6-3, 6-6 Del Potro* (*next server) - tie-break
Djokovic cooly serves out a love hold, and we're heading for a second set tie-break.
Djokovic* 6-3, 5-6 Del Potro (*next server)
Steady serving from Del Potro - including an ace out wide - secure a hold to 15. Djokovic will serve to stay in the second set for a second time.
That Meryl Streep reaction I mentioned is going absolutely viral by the way.
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) September 9, 2018
Djokovic 6-3, 5-5 Del Potro* (*next server)
Djokovic is serving pretty conservatively but Del Potro can't take advantage. Djokovic flicks away a forehand volley to complete a blessedly comfortable hold to 15.
Djokovic* 6-3, 4-5 Del Potro (*next server)
A relatively simple game, as Del Potro holds to 30 from 40-15 up. A couple of monster serves help him on his way, and Djokovic will serve to stay in the second set.
Both players are agitated - Del Potro is saying there's water leaking from the roof; Djokovic is obsessing over one of the balls that he feels is dead.
Djokovic 6-3, 4-4 Del Potro* (*next server) - Djokovic saves three break points and holds
Del Potro's defence is such an underrated part of his game, and he scuttles around the court to keep the point alive until Djokovic eventually nails him with a smash for 30-15. Djokovic, his eyes almost bulging out of their sockets, tells the crowd to make some noise. Del Potro responds on the next point with a pile-driver of a 97mph forehand winner, and then forces a break point with a sensational backhand winner up the line! Wow. what a shot. The crowd screams their approval. Del Potro then can't believe it as he nets a very makeable backhand. What a chance missed. Djokovic then gets away with exceeding the 25 seconds allowed between points, but please no let's not have another refereeing controversy. And Del Potro then forces another break point as he stands his ground on a Djokovic forehand and thwacks away a forehand winner crosscourt. How on earth did he make that? But again Del Potro is just a little impatient on the break point and is suckered in to blaring a forehand long. Djokovic then double faults when up game point as he desperately tries to close out this game. He then sprays a backhand long when up game point again moments later. Will this game ever end? It's into its 15th minute. Not just yet it won't - Del Potro absolutely unleashes an inside-in forehand that even Djokovic can't retrieve. Meryl Streep - one of many famous faces in the crowd tonight - reflects the general mood by clasping her cheeks in wonderment. Djokovic then nets a forehand, and it's break point number three for Del Potro. Third time lucky? No! Djokovic saves it with a gutsy forehand volley. Djokovic finally holds on as Del Potro us hustled into a couple of errors. That game lasted almost 20 minutes!
The umpire is having to ask for calm pretty much every point, with some members of the crowd even cheering Djokovic's service faults.
Djokovic* 6-3, 3-4 Del Potro (*next server)
Oh the crowd are into this now. Chants of "Delpo" are ringing around the arena, and Djokovic is not enjoying it one bit - imploring the umpire to tell them to simmer down. She tries but the atmosphere is electric, especially after Del Potro bangs down an ace to wrap up a love hold.
Three games in a row for Del Potro, and Djokovic looks rattled.
Djokovic 6-3, 3-3 Del Potro* (*next server) - Del Potro breaks back
Is the momentum of this match about to change? Del Potro rifles two monster forehands for 30-30 and lets out his first guttural roar of the night. He then bullets a third forehand up the line to earn his first break point of the match at 30-40. The crowd is going wild for Del Potro, but their man misses the break point after sending a forehand pass wide. Djokovic is not enjoying the partisan Del Potro support, and tells the crowd to be quiet. His mood worsens considerably after the next two points as he makes consecutive forehand errors to hand Del Potro the break!
We're back on serve in the second set. How significant a momentum change will this prove to be?
Djokovic* 6-3, 3-2 Del Potro (*next server)
Delpo is having to play so well just to win points. Thankfully for him he does just that this game, thundering away booming shot after booming shot to eke out a critical hold to 30.
Djokovic looks like a marathon runner who's got past the pacing himself stage and is now sprinting towards the finishing line.
Djokovic 6-3, 3-1 Del Potro* (*next server)
Oh my, even in his halcyon 2015-16 period Djokovic was rarely this good. He moves to 30-15 with a beautifully guided forehand half-volley to end a perfectly constructed point. Del Potro then chucks in a couple of errors, and Djokovic holds to 15.
Djokovic has won six of the last seven games.
Djokovic* 6-3, 2-1 Del Potro (*next server) - Djokovic breaks
Djokovic is toying with Del Potro now, luring him to the net and then snaring him with a clever lob for 30-30. Moments later it's break point once again, as Del Potro is forced to overcook a forehand to make it 30-40. This time there's no mistake from Djokovic as a superb return forced Del Potro to miscue a forehand miles long.
Djokovic is playing masterfully well and is a set and a break to the good.
Djokovic 6-3, 1-1 Del Potro* (*next server)
Djokovic is swaggering at the moment. He's so confident that he's routinely hitting to the Del Potro forehand, trusting that he will ultimately draw an error from his opponent. A guided backhand pass up the line seals a breezy hold to 15.
Djokovic* 6-3, 0-1 Del Potro (*next server) - Del Potro saves two break points and holds
The good news for Del Potro is that he also lost the first set when he won the US Open final against Roger Federer in 2009. The bad news is that Djokovic has won 218 out of 223 grand-slam matches when he's won the first set.
And the way Djokovic is playing at the moment, this final could get away from Del Potro. He's in one of those moods when it looks impossible to get the ball past him. His anticipation is just spectacular, and it helps him to 0-30 as he bends down for a backhand volley winner and then nails a forehand winner up the line. Delpo cranks up the power to reel off the next three points for 40-30, but Djokovic forces deuce with a forehand winner and then rips a backhand passing shot up the line to earn himself a break point. Djokovic wastes it with an errant backhand, and is then powerless moments later as Del Potro saves a second break point with a thudding forehand up the line. Del Potro eventually holds when Djokovic pulls a backhand wide.
Huge hold for Del Potro, but Djokovic is playing awesome tennis right now.
Djokovic 6-3 Del Potro* (*next server) - Game and first set Djokovic
A brilliant backhand winner up the line gets Del Potro into the game at 15-15, before a missed backhand from Djokovic has us at 30-30. A stinging serve out wide draws a missed Del Potro forehand, and it's set point Djokovic at 40-30. And he takes it! Del Potro nets a forehand, and that is the first set for Djokovic.
Djokovic* 5-3 Del Potro (*next server) - Djokovic breaks!
Del Potro is serving extremely smart so far, mixing up his speeds and placement perfectly. An ace out wide helps him to 40-0 en route to what looks like a simple service game. But wait just a moment, Djokovic showcases some of his world-class defence to battle back to deuce, and then draws a forehand error to earn the first break point of the match up advantage. And he takes it! After an epic exchange, Del Potro nets a forehand.
Out of nowhere, Djokovic will serve for the first set.
Djokovic 4-3 Del Potro* (*next server)
Very authoritative game from Novak. A couple of excellent drive volleys help him to a love hold, and the pressure swings instantly back onto his opponent's shoulders.
Djokovic* 3-3 Del Potro (*next server)
A slight concern I would have for Delpo here is that his forehand is being denied some of its usual potency by the slower than usual conditions in a damp and dreary New York. That said, it serves him well enough here to help him to a hold to 15.
Djokovic 3-2 Del Potro* (*next server)
Delpo has a good look at a forehand at 15-15, but he skews it wide with Djokovic looking vulnerable at the net. Solid serving on the next two points ease Djokovic to a hold to 15.
Make no mistake, both men have come to play tonight. Crackling atmosphere as well, with the first cries of "Delpo, Delpo, Delpo" ringing around the Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Djokovic* 2-2 Del Potro (*next server)
Excellent level from both players early on, as Delpo claims a breezy hold to 15 with a first backhand winner.
Djokovic 2-1 Del Potro* (*next server)
Superb stuff from Del Potro, as he rips a forehand approach up the line that sets up a flicked backhand volley winner for 0-30. It's back to 30-30 though as Del Potro nets backhands in consecutive points. Djokovic forces a game point at 40-30 with a strong serve-forehand volley winner combo, but Delpo forces deuce with a blistering inside out forehand winner of his own. Djokovic then roars with defiance after nailing a forehand winner to move up advantage. A missed Delpo return seals the hold.
Djokovic* 1-1 Del Potro (*next server)
Strong serving from Del Potro helps him to 40-0, before a stinging inside-in forehand wraps up a love hold. No sign of nerves from either man early on.
Djokovic 1-0 Del Potro* (*next server)
After netting a forehand to lose the first point, Djokovic reels off the next three to move to 40-15 - helped by a steady backhand volley. The first really lengthy of the match then ensues - ending with a wide Delpo backhand - and Djokovic holds to 30.
Djokovic to serve first.
Del Potro won the toss and elected to receive. That tends to be a reflection of nerves, which would be entirely understandable.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 9, 2018
If Delpo is to win tonight
Let's hope the interviewer is not as awfully gauche as last time when Del Potro was initially denied his request to say a few words in Spanish.
Players are out
Warm cheers for both players - but this crowd is going to be vehemently pro-Del Potro.
Yep, still we wait
Predictions? I'm going Novak in four.
There will be guff
The men's final is scheduled to start in a couple of minutes, but there will likely be some overblown pre-match entertainment first.
The roof will be on tonight
It's a dreary, rainy afternoon in New York so the roof will be on for this evening's final, as it was for the women's final yesterday. Given Djokovic's incredible record indoors, you'd imagine that would favour him.
Head to head
When these two have met before, it's tended to have been Djokovic who's come out on top. He's won 14 out of their 18 meetings, and on both occasions when they've met at the US Open. Del Potro's last win over Djokovic was at the Olympics two years ago.
The grand finale
When Juan Martin del Potro won the US Open in 2009, it was unclear whether it was he or Novak Djokovic who would be the biggest threat to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal's duopoly.
Both men had one grand-slam title to their name, but for some Del Potro looked the safer bet. After all he had the far bigger game - as demonstrated in the way he blew both Nadal and Federer off the court in that US Open run - and Djokovic had a habit for pulling out of matches with illness and injury.
In the nine years since, the pair's careers have taken such divergent paths that the above seems almost impossible to believe. Djokovic has picked up a further 12 majors - a win tonight would take him joint-third in the all-time list with 14 - while Del Potro's career has been decimated by injury, making this his first slam final since that win in 2009.
Thankfully, Del Potro's injury woes look to be behind him. After the four wrist surgeries that derailed his career between 2011 and 2015, Del Potro is back to his terrifying best. The wrecking-ball forehand remains arguably the most potent shot in tennis, while the backhand is a weapon rather than a post-operation liability.
He has dropped just one set in getting to the final, and will be roared on by a vocal support base that will make the Big Apple feel like Buenos Aires tonight.
Unfortunately for Del Potro, his opponent has enjoyed a similar renaissance in the past few months. After struggling for form and motivation after completing the career Grand Slam two years ago, Djokovic rediscovered his mojo to win a fourth Wimbledon crown in July. He then scooped up the Cincinatti title last month to complete a clean sweep of Masters titles, and against Kei Nishikori in Friday's semi-final issued a statement with a performance of peerless accuracy and focus.
We'll go some way to match the drama of last night's final, but these two certainly know how to put on a show. The last time they met at a major was the Wimbledon semi-final in 2013, which Djokovic won in five sets and nearly five hours.
I'm expecting Djokovic to win slightly more easily tonight, but if Del Potro finds his range then anything is possible.
Either way, a thrilling match would be a fitting end to what has been one of the most action-packed grand slams in recent memory.
The players are due on court at 9pm BST.