It was victory over Roger Federer in Wimbledon 2014 that propelled Djokovic back to the top of the rankings, and in the 170 matches he had played since, he had lost only 15. And when it came to Grand Slam matches, his results were even more remarkable: He failed to reach the final only twice, and went on to win five of the nine.
Broaden the picture, and the top seed and defending US Open champion was about to play his 21st Grand Slam final and targeting his 13th title. Among active players, in this golden era of tennis, only Federer and Nadal had done better.
In 18 of those previous 20 finals, he had played fellow ‘big four’ colleagues, Federer, Nadal, and Andy Murray. And though these three had tested the Serb time and again through their long rivalries, he had gradually built leading head-to-heads over them all.
But he did not need to worry about any of them in this 21st final. Federer pulled out of the entire season after Wimbledon to rehab a knee injury; Nadal, having played just two events since retiring at Roland Garros with wrist problems, was beaten in five sets in the quarter-finals; Murray, since reaching his first French Open final, won back-to-back titles at Queen’s, Wimbledon, and the Olympics, but after also running to the Cincinnati final, he ran out of legs in the quarters here.
Djokovic had also been suffering the effects of a seven-title season, and pulled out of Cincinnati with a shoulder problem picked up at the Olympics. But time in New York seemed, be on his side.
In a freakish turn of events, he received a walkover in the second round, a retirement after six games in the third, met the lowly ranked Briton Kyle Edmund, who had dispatched seeds Richard Gasquet and John Isner, in the fourth, and got another retirement in the second set in the quarters.
The champion would therefore arrive at the final via a bizarre match against Gael Monfils having spent fewer than nine hours on court, compared with almost 18 hours played by his opponent.
But Djokovic knew that this opponent, the No3 seed, had in the last three years become as dangerous as all the others. Stan Wawrinka had not just won two Majors, but had beaten Djokovic en route to both titles.
‘Stan the Man’ may have won only four out of 23 previous matches against Djokovic, but the Swiss man’s late-career blossoming began in one of the finest matches of the last decade. It was the fourth round of the Australian Open in 2013, and Wawrinka just missed out, 12-10, in the fifth set. The Swiss would go on to lose another blistering five-setter to Djokovic at the US Open the same year. But come their next meeting in Australia, Wawrinka won in yet another five-set thriller, and marched on to the title. The very next year, at the French Open, he denied Djokovic once more, in the final.
So by the time they squared up on Arthur Ashe with another Major at stake, it is fair to say that their Grand Slam rivalry had become one of the most compelling on the tour, one that opposed the relentless, accurate precision of the super-elastic and athletic Djokovic against the uninhibited power-play of the Swiss.
The story of Wawrinka’s late blossoming has been often repeated. How, with titles proving elusive and with confidence and ranking dipping in 2012, he determined to try one last time to fulfil his obvious potential, even if, as the words on his forearm reminded him, he ended up ‘failing better’.
He took on coach Magnus Norman, a stroke of tactical genius, and his tennis became more aggressive and forward-moving, his physical shape sharper, his endurance greater.
The new model “Stan the Man” was soon on display in that Australian marathon against Djokovic, and little more than a year later, Wawrinka was a Grand Slam champion, went on to win his first Masters in Monte Carlo, claimed Roland Garros, joined with Federer to win the Davis Cup, and rose to No3 in the rankings.
And though still an unpredictable force on a tennis court, there was no getting away from the fact that he had become a big-time player: big in tennis, big in delivering on the big occasion. Since 2014, he had won in all 10 finals played.
Could Wawrinka once again produce his best shot-making on the biggest stage of all, or would Djokovic rise to the occasion, as champions so often do?
Well it began in style: a full-blooded rally that would prelude so many more superb points. Djokovic’s extraordinary defensive skills were tested and prevailed, but Wawrinka’s forehand was tested and found wanting to concede an immediate break.
In what seemed the blink of an eye, Djokovic had a 4-1 lead, and almost broke again, but gradually Wawrinka was finding his range and responding to the pace of his opponent. He held with a forehand winner followed by an ace, but after a love hold from Djokovic, the Swiss faced two set points, 15-40. Now, though, the big shots were coming more freely, first a backhand winner then a forehand. He held, and turned the tables to work three break-back chances—the result of seven straight points—and sure enough, levelled at 5-5.
But come the tie-break, Djokovic took command on all but one point—an all-court stunner that drew a standing ovation—and took the set, 7-6(1).
This, though, was the time to remember that Wawrinka had won his previous two Majors from this position. And sure enough, he broke to lead 4-1, saw Djokovic level at 4-4, but broke again for the set, 6-4.
He won the next two games, too, as the match broke through two hours, but Djokovic stemmed the flow in a long fifth game, forcing errors from the Swiss and breaking. Both men were playing as though their lives depended on it—and indeed the match did, in the end, seem to turn at this set’s very end with a decisive break from Wawrinka, 7-5.
Djokovic, who had needed physio on his shoulders in his previous match, began to sag between points in the fourth set while Wawrinka looked increasingly strong, and that liberated the Swiss man’s signature backhand down the line. He held the first game with two of them, and broke with another, as his opponent appeared to cramp.
However, Djokovic did not call for a time-out until Wawrinka was about to serve in the fourth game—a controversial move given that he might have done so during the natural break after three games. But with two bandaged toes, he continued, and Wawrinka finally came through two break points to consolidate his lead, 4-1.
Remarkably, they were standing at 136 points each, but Wawrinka had taken the points that counted, and despite another brief stoppage, he served out his third Grand Slam title, 6-3, after four hours of often gripping tennis and considerable drama.
The 31-year-old Wawrinka, who at 28 had toyed with giving up, has now joined a list of great names who have won two or more Majors after turning 30, the likes of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and Jimmy Connors. He admitted, however:
“There is no secret. If you want to beat the No1 player in the world, you have to give everything. You have to accept to suffer, and you have almost to enjoy to suffer. Because I think this Grand Slam was the most painful, physically and mentally, that I ever played.”
Djokovic had said ahead of this match: “He’s such a powerful player. He has a big serve and probably the best, most effective one-handed backhand in the world. He can play it all. He has that variety in his game. He can be very dangerous for everybody.”
And so it has proved. But it also proved once again that, on the biggest stage against the biggest players, few can play big-time tennis to match the Swiss. It can be, quite simply, exhilarating.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge