When Pete Sampras hung up his racket after winning a record 14th Major singles title at the US Open in 2002, most believed it was a record that would stand for a long, long time.
After all, the likes of Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Fred Perry had not even made double figures, while Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver managed 11 apiece. Sampras’s 14 broke new ground, outstripping the then record of 12 held by Roy Emerson since 1967.
Yet even then, the writing was on the wall in the shape of an upstart Swiss who beat Sampras in his Wimbledon stronghold in 2001, and began his own march into the record books the very next year with his first Major on the same turf. Fewer than seven years later, he matched Sampras’s 14, and within a month had overtaken him with No15—at Wimbledon again.
And as if that was not enough, another upstart, this time from Spain, began a similar race to 14 in 2005. Exactly nine years later, Rafael Nadal also reached 14 where his own piece of history had begun, at Roland Garros—and overtook Sampras in Paris in 2017.
Yet exactly 16 years after that ‘unmatchable’ No14 was achieved in New York, it was entirely possible that a third man could match the Sampras tally. That man was Novak Djokovic.
In truth, 18 months ago, it looked doubtful whether the Serb who had broken the Federer/Nadal stranglehold on Majors and the No1 ranking would go on to threaten that No14 landmark.
After his gut-busting effort to seal his first French Open title in 2016, his fourth Major in a row, followed by a battle with Andy Murray through the rest of the season to retain the No1 ranking, the physical and mental toll began to show in his results. By the time he retired in the quarters at Wimbledon last year, he had an elbow injury that would take him off the tour for the rest of the season.
His return in 2018 had begun cautiously, but gradually the old form and confidence returned, along with his old coaching team, and he made the final of Queen’s and then won his 13th Major at Wimbledon. Add to the resume his unique completion of the ‘Masters Nine’ in Cincinnati, and he became the favourite to win his third title at the US Open—and equal that Sampras record with his 40th match-win of the year.
But there was a big obstacle blocking that walk to the podium: the 6ft6in Argentine, Juan Martin del Potro.
The much loved, much respected del Potro knew a thing or two about injury and comebacks, too. Since winning, at the age 20, his first Major title at the US Open in 2009 tournament, he had gone under the knife four times for wrist injury, and each time worked his way back.
After his most recent surgery in 2015, he returned at a ranking of 1,042, found the first six months a tough battle for fitness, but scored a singular victory in the August—over Djokovic at the Rio Olympics. And it was the second time he had thwarted the Serb’s Olympic ambition: he also won their 2012 battle for the bronze medal.
Make no mistake: Djokovic had dominated their decade-long rivalry, 14-4. But he now faced an Argentine who reached the semis in New York last year, when ranked just 28, and who arrived this year in perhaps his best form since that one and only Major final nine years ago.
A first Masters title in Indian Wells, another title and two more finals, plus the semis in Miami and Roland Garros, took del Potro to 43 wins this season and a career-high ranking of No3 after Wimbledon.
He had dropped just one set on the way to the final, and that against a full complement of seeds: Fernando Verdasco, Borna Coric, John Isner and Rafael Nadal, who retired after the second set. That gave the 29-year-old Argentine 10 victories over world No1s, the most by any player who has not held the top spot himself.
No wonder Djokovic conceded:
“He’s playing the tennis of his life, without a doubt, in the past 15 months.”
For del Potro, then, this represented a kind of victory over adversity already: his second Major final and the chance to win his second Major title. He admitted:
“I didn’t expect to get these kinds of emotions playing tennis again. Reaching finals, winning titles, having my highest ranking ever in this moment, everything is almost perfect.”
Could he, in this final, make it completely perfect?
It would take three and a quarter hours of intense tennis through three gruelling sets to answer the question. There was little between them in the first half dozen games, but the slow conditions took some of the edge off the famed del Potro serve, and the Serb’s outrageous defensive skills demanded more and more effort from the Argentine.
Del Potro gave up a 40-0 lead in the eighth game to offer break point, and Djokovic kept his opponent on the run to draw a desperate error and the break, 3-5. The Serb served out the set, 6-3, though the two men had managed to make only six winners apiece.
Djokovic kept up the pressure on del Potro in the first game of the next set, worked three deuces and two break chances, but the Argentine held. However, facing the same trouble in the third game, he could not resist, and Djokovic served for 3-1.
Del Potro had to find more, and hope that the Djokovic level dropped a little. First del Potro found his very best forehands, three of them, to break, then delivered his best serving, a love hold with an ace. He had done his best, and now had the very real chance to break again in what proved to be a make-or-break game.
Del Potro brought up break point with a backhand winner, and then another on the forehand wing, but a third break chance vanished as the Argentine went for the winner and over-played. Eight deuces, 20 minutes, plus resilient defence and determination, and Djokovic had survived, 4-4.
It would go, finally, to a tie-break, and the Serb composure was back in place. He drew two forehand errors to seal the 95-minute set, 7-6(4).
The third soon brought an advantage to Djokovic, whose speed and reading of the del Potro game made him virtually impenetrable. A 22-shot rally broke the Argentine resistance, 3-1, as Djokovic threw in more net points to rush the Argentine even more.
He conceded a break back when del Potro made a remarkable pick-up at the net to finish with a volley winner, but as the clock headed past three hours, Djokovic’s level was peaking against a tired del Potro. One final break, and Djokovic served out his victory, 6-3, for his own piece of history.
Sixteen years ago, Sampras set that No14 record. Nine years ago, Federer matched it, and was followed by Nadal four years ago. Now Djokovic joined the illustrious 14 Club.
Confronted with the news as he collected the 50th US Open trophy, Djokovic said simply: “Pete, you’re my idol.”
The chances are, too, that Djokovic, like Federer and Nadal, will go on to pass that famous milestone. This truly is a golden era for men’s tennis.
But a final word for the bold runner-up, who sobbed into his towel after a warm embrace with the champion. Del Potro could not have given more—as has been the case through those trying nine years since he was last in this final. He told Djokovic:
“He knows that he’s one of my friends on tour and one player I want to watch winning titles. Of course, I’m sad because I lose, but I’m happy for Novak.”
New York, you witnessed two champions at work in your final US Open match of 2018.
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BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge
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