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NEW YORK — Of all the emotions a teary-eyed Novak Djokovic felt Sunday as he sat in his chair, watching a stage get constructed for someone else to accept the trophy he came here to win, the most interesting was relief.
Of course he was sad about losing the U.S. Open final decisively to Daniil Medvedev, about failing to grab the opportunity of a lifetime to complete the calendar-year Grand Slam. And as he said on the stage to the New York crowd that had once given him the cold shoulder, he was genuinely touched by the way they finally embraced him in this final and tried to lift him to come back one more time.
But it says something about the weight of what Djokovic was trying to accomplish that relief was on his mind Sunday. If the most clutch player in the history of men's tennis could not overcome the pressure of trying to win the Grand Slam, it’s hard to believe any man will. If a player who has pulled off so many miracles from match point down and whose focus intensifies when his competitors fall apart couldn’t bring it when he got this close, Rod Laver’s 52-year-old achievement in the men’s game is probably safe.
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“I was glad it was over,” a still emotional Djokovic said 45 minutes after the match ended. “Because the buildup for this tournament and everything that mentally, emotionally I had to deal with throughout the tournament the last couple weeks was a lot. It was a lot to handle.”
In the larger context of tennis history, the concept of winning the four most important tournaments of the year as a Holy Grail achievement is a relatively new one.
Until the 1980s, a lot of top players on both the men's and women’s side either skipped the Australian Open or played it infrequently. For a stretch in the 1970s shortly after tennis became a professional sport, Chris Evert and several other top players chose playing World Team Tennis over the French Open. When Steffi Graf won all four majors in 1988 at age 19, the lead story in the New York Times framed her U.S. Open as a legitimizing victory for the 10-year-old Billie Jean King National Tennis Center which was described as “a much maligned byproduct of professional tennis, a place where money, not tradition, has counted most.”
And yet, as the sport has evolved, it has chosen success in these four tournaments — held annually in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York — as the measuring stick for greatness. Held on three different surfaces, on three different continents, with a season that spans more than seven months, it makes perfect sense that a player who raises all four trophies in the same calendar year has done something worthy of immortality — as Graf did in 1988 when she added Olympic gold to her four majors to become the first and only player to win the so-called Golden Slam.
But the chase to achieve it quite clearly comes with a unique feeling that even the biggest winners in the history of the sport can’t quite cope with.
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In 2015, Serena Williams came to New York having won the first three Grand Slam titles of the year. and seemed on her way to a coronation. Instead, she lost in the semifinals to 43rd-ranked Roberta Vinci, a player who had never given her a hint of trouble in four previous meetings, and admitted that the pressure got to her.
It would be inaccurate to call Sunday a Vinci-type moment for Djokovic. Medvedev is the No. 2 player in the world, had beaten Djokovic three times before and was primed to win a Grand Slam singles title — particularly on a hard court, where he’s been dominant week in and week out on the tour.
But it’s also true that Djokovic, for whatever reason, was not at his best in the final. Maybe it was all the long matches he had played in this tournament catching up with him, including the five-set battle he had with Alexander Zverev in the semifinals. Maybe, in his own mind, he couldn’t block out the enormity of what he was on the verge of achieving.
Either way, despite vowing to pour everything he had into this match, Djokovic looked completely spent by the end. His elastic body that has made him the greatest returner of serve in the history of the game couldn’t catch up to Medvedev’s blasts all day. And in so many key moments, when Djokovic was made to run down short balls, he was a quarter-step slow and sprayed them all over the court.
“I had more hours on the court than Daniil, that’s for sure, but it was also an emotionally demanding period for me in the last five, six months with Slams and Olympics, everything was coming together for me here and accumulating all the emotions I’ve been through,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t make it in the final step, but when you draw the line you have to be very satisfied with the year.
“I’ve been very transparent and vocal about my goals to play my best tennis at Slams, and I’m managing to do that. I was short today for another Slam title but I have to be proud with everything that my team and I achieved, and in tennis we learn very quickly how to turn the next page.”
Still, the sting of this loss will surely linger for Djokovic, who has held all four majors at once before but is unlikely to have another chance to do it again in the same calendar year. He is clearly not done playing and can be a force in the game for several more years, but at 34, maintaining that level gets increasingly difficult. And the younger competition is starting to show more signs that they’re ready to take over the sport.
“I do feel sorry for Novak because I cannot imagine what he feels,” Medvedev said. “Knowing that I beat somebody who was 27-0 in a year in Grand Slams, he was going for huge history, and knowing that I managed to stop him it definitely makes it sweeter and brings me confidence for what is to come.”
The fact that it all got too big, too much for even Djokovic, does not bode well for the next person to be in this position — if there even is one in our lifetimes. As much as the Grand Slam is a relatively new construct, we’ve learned it’s extremely difficult just to win the first three of the year. Winning all four may just be impossible.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open: Novak Djokovic falls short in chase for tennis Grand Slam