Last year’s prediction piece didn’t go to plan, to say the least. After boldly declaring that Dominic Thiem’s US Open victory was the start of a new era in tennis, being the first man part of the ‘new gen’ and born in the 1990s to win a grand slam, two of the first three slams of the year were comfortably won by the perennial king Novak Djokovic, as well as a more testing French Open title in June. Upon lifting that trophy on Centre Court, he tied with rivals Federer and Nadal on 20 grand slams, as well as setting up the possibility of not only a calendar slam (all four grand slam titles in one calendar year), but also the golden slam (Olympic gold included), with the postponement of them perhaps retrospectively a blessing for Novak. No man had done the calendar slam since 1965. No man had done the golden slam in the Open Era.
Alas, Olympic gold befell him- after looking imperious until the semi final, a next-level performance from Sascha Zverev wrenched a victory away from him. Cue Zverev winning gold in emphatic style, and making a statement of his newfound level of quality after many pundits (including myself) had thought he’d hit his ceiling.
But never mind. The calendar slam was still the cake without the cherry. And a US Open draw that played into Djokovic’s favour helped matters further. Nothing would be too testing for him until a potential semi versus Zverev- far from a guarantee given Zverev’s damning stat of never beating a top 10 ranked player at a slam before. Even then, Novak could take confidence that his defeat in Tokyo to him came in just a three set match. He’d have 5 to beat him this time. Additionally, his two biggest problems given Nadal’s withdrawal, Daniil Medvedev and Stef Tsitsipas, were in the other half of the draw, and thus couldn’t meet in the final. Novak would have been worried about the mercurial Tsitsipas, yet more nervous about Medvedev, coming into the tournament on a ridiculous winning streak on hardcourts without dropping a set.
Indeed, it was Medvedev who reached the final to challenge him. Despite not having a particularly tough draw, Medvedev cruised to the final, only dropping one set all tournament against Dutch qualifier Botic van de Zandschulp in the quarters, where he really just tuned out for a single service game costing him the set. By contrast, Novak had been hampered by bleeding sets- 1 to Holger Rune in round one, then opening sets to Kei Nishikori, Jenson Brooksby and Matteo Berrettini in rounds three to five, before a five set epic versus Zverev in the semi which he came through.
And in that semi lay the preview in the nutshell of the final. Over the past few years, I’ve been drawn into placing more faith in the data-driven side of sport, away from my traditional opinions based on sporting Calvinism and what the naked eye can see, as mentioned in previous roar articles. Regarding this, it was clear that Medvedev was in the better form- pummelling all before him on hardcourt, topping all the statistics chart, mistakes learned from his previous two grand slam final defeats (including one in Melbourne earlier this year to Novak in straight sets) and clearly ready to beat Djokovic. Yet Djokovic, the toughest nut to crack in tennis history, was nearly everyone’s favourite before the match, including myself- the logic being that his sheer will to achieve a near-unique feat in tennis history (one not done by his big three rivals) would see him through, regardless of form or tiredness. This was a view emboldened by the semi-final, not least his post-match words (“I’ll play it like it’s the last match of my career”), but also those of Zverev (“[Djokovic] takes away your legs, then he takes away your soul”).
But that’s hopefully one of the last times I’ll let outcome bias affect me. In the end, logic trumped instinct as Medvedev clipped away at a tired Djokovic to win in straight sets, deny him the calendar slam, and pick up his first grand slam title, becoming only the second ‘new gen’ and man born in the 1990s to do so.
The opening game set the tone for the rest of the match. Medvedev was sturdy, unflinching, with erratic and unexpected unforced errors from Djokovic allowing too many games to slip from his grasp. Medvedev’s controlled, aggressive forehands proved decisive throughout, placing him in control of all of his rallies on serve and more. In addition, Novak’s serve lacked conviction and pace, especially on a timid second serve- at the end of the 1st set which Medvedev took, Novak had just the four aces to Medvedev’s eight.
A crucial turning point came in the opening game of the second set- Medvedev rescued a game on serve from 0-40 down, deeply frustrating Djokovic, a trend continuing to his service game at 2-2 which slipped from his grasp to give Medvedev a break. Cue racket smash. Cue a growing sense among everyone that Medvedev might just do it. This one felt different to the French Open final earlier this year, where despite Tsitsipas taking a two-set lead, one always felt that Djokovic still had the keys to the match.
But they keys were all Medvedev’s in the third. He raced into a 4-0 lead, Novak’s 6 sets dropped during the tournament compared to Medvedev’s one clearly telling in energy levels, letting one service game slip, before serving it out for a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 victory, inversing the three set defeat that he suffered to Djokovic in Melbourne in February.
Yet the outcome wasn’t the most important moment of the final. Djokovic, realising that the jig was up late in the third set, began sobbing into his towel. Maybe it dawned on him that he had come so close to history his rivals hadn’t achieved. Maybe it was realising that he is indeed aging, is human and the legs aren’t quite what they were in his peak. But in it was the aspect of Djokovic that has eluded him throughout his career- an adoration from a crowd full of tennis fans unseen at a grand slam bar the occasional Serbian-expat dominated crowd in Melbourne at the Australian Open.
Both the crowd, tennis fans across the world, and Novak himself, realised in that moment that he is human. Throughout his career he has built his success on precision and mechanics of tennis, the more robotic nature of his style of play less aesthetic than the artistry of Nadal and Federer. He has been able to go the distance where others couldn’t. Nobody in the history of the game has understood the peaks and troughs of five set tennis more than him.
But that victory for him is perhaps bigger than the calendar slam, as he eluded to in his on-court interview after the defeat. And that is perhaps what he needed to truly enter the hearts of tennis fans.
As for the near future of the men’s game, Zverev has hit a new plain, Medvedev has his slam and is exceptional on hard court, and the fear of playing the big guns have by and large gone. I’ll be less bold than last year, and won’t say this is the start of a new era (especially given Nadal’s dominance on clay and Novak’s on grass still pre-eminent), but will say that the conversation of slam favourites will become deeper.
Medvedev is now in the truly elite conversation. And now in the tennis history books.