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(By Jonathon Braden) As the women’s final replayed on two TVs in the player cafe Sunday morning, Novak Djokovic’s coach, Marian Vajda, had a prediction.
Vajda, who rejoined Djokovic’s team in April after an 11-month split, was discussing the controversial final with Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou, who glanced at the TVs from time to time.
The two exchanged their views on the day – in general, umpires should stay out of it – and Vajda showed Mouratoglou how he planned to act during the men’s final: “You will see me today,” he said, with his arms pinned to his body.
He wasn’t taking any chances. “It’s going to be fun today,” Vajda said.
For Djokovic’s team, the men’s final was exactly that: free of controversy and full of fun, like old times, really. The 31-year-old Djokovic beat Juan Martin del Potro 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 to win his third US Open title and his 14th Grand Slam crown, tying American Pete Sampras’ former record.
In 2002, the 31-year-old Sampras won his 14th and final Slam. Before him, Bjorn Borg had been the most recent man to win double-digit Slams, winning his 11th at the 1981 French Open. But in the past nine years, three men, including Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, have reached the 14-Slam mark.
“Maybe 10 years ago I would say I’m not so happy to be part of this era with Nadal and Federer. Actually today I am. I really am. I feel like these guys, rivalries with these guys, matches with Federer and Nadal, have made me the player I am, have shaped me into the player I am today,” Djokovic said.
“I have the utmost respect for what they have achieved on the court, but also the champions, role models they are off the court. I think we have pushed each other to the limit every time we get to play each other.”
Djokovic had to beat none of them to hoist his third Flushing crown, but his road back, which started with doubts in Australia and turned around with highs in the French mountains, has featured victories against his two all-time peers.
In Melbourne, Djokovic was months away from competing for trophies. He fell in straight sets to Hyeon Chung of South Korea and weeks later, underwent surgery on his right elbow after the months of rest and rehab hadn’t solved the pain.
But it wasn’t until March, days before the Miami Open, where Djokovic lost to Frenchman Benoit Paire in straight sets in his opener, that the Serbian finally felt pain-free for the first time in two years.
The pieces of his puzzle fell in place from there. He reunited with Vajda in April, and by May, at the ATP Masters in Rome, Djokovic fell to Nadal in the semifinal.
“I expected… after surgery that I’ll be back on a high level quite fast. But, you know, it took me actually three, four months really. In that process, I learned a lot about myself, learned to be patient, which was never really a stronger side of me,” Djokovic said.
However, his stumble in the Roland Garros quarterfinals, against Italian Marco Cecchinato, caused Djokovic to hit pause. He thought he was back, yet he fell to a man who was playing ATP Challenger Tour tournaments at the start of the season.
“I was very, very disappointed with my performance that day. I felt like I started to play well in Roma, had some great matches in Roland Garros, and then I felt like I let myself down a little bit there,” Djokovic said.
The solution was no more tennis. He and his wife, Jelena, disconnected and climbed in the French mountains for five days. The moment of clarity came after a three-hour hike, when he and his wife sat down and gazed off of Sainte-Victoire Mountain.
“We just looked at the world from that perspective, just kind of breathed in the new inspiration, new motivation,” Djokovic said. “I thought of tennis, thought of the emotion that tennis provokes in me in a way. It was all positives. I just felt like I had a new breath for this sport.”
Six weeks later, he ended a 54-week title drought and hoisted his fourth Wimbledon trophy, with his 3-year-old son, Stefan, smiling and shouting “Daddy! Daddy!”
The father of two has now won 22 of his past 23 matches. He completed his career Golden Masters by winning the US Open Series event in Cincinnati last month, beating Federer along the way.
“If you told me in February this year when I got the surgery that I’ll win Wimbledon, US Open, and Cincinnati, would be hard to believe. But at the same time there was always part of me that imagined and believed and hoped that I can get back on the desired level of tennis very soon,” Djokovic said.
In Flushing, for the second US Open final in recent years, he overcame a crowd who was rooting for his opponent.
Amid chants of “Olé, olé, olé, olé, Delpo, Delpo,” Djokovic told himself the Argentines were backing him and chanting his nickname, “Nole.”
“I actually make myself hear that… I really do,” Djokovic said.
In 2015, when fans inside a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium shouted “Roger! Roger!”, Djokovic told the New York Times, he convinced himself they were shouting “Novak! Novak!”
There’s plenty more for the all-time great to chase as the 2018 heads into its final months. Djokovic is in second place in the ATP Race To London, 1,035 points behind first-place Rafael Nadal, who retired after two sets in his US Open semifinal against del Potro. Two Slam titles and a return trip to No. 1? Hardly a comeback season for the Serbian.
But first, the Serbian has another trip to the mountains planned. “We’ll be hiking some more very soon,” he said.
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