At the U.S. Open, Novak Djokovic Isn’t the Most Beloved Player, But He Is the Best

Novak Djokovic gets his opponents’ serves back in play—lots of them, more than any other player on the men’s tour, when he is playing well. He is the greatest returner in the game, arguably the greatest ever. His returns aren’t lovely and they aren’t spectacular; they’re not meant to be. He’s hardly ever trying to hit service-return winners. His returns are simply—but not so simply, really—meant to “neutralize the point.” In the power tennis that is played now, the server is always attempting, with his first serve, either to hit an ace or, more often, to deliver a serve that will result in a return to his forehand, not too deep. Because the forehand is the shot that most players hit hardest and most accurately, the server can and should, from there, take control of the point: that is, he can establish a pattern to create an opening for a winner or get his opponent on the run or otherwise under pressure. Djokovic, with his returns, denies the server this control. He guides his return up the middle, or to the opponent’s backhand, and deep, to the very edge of the baseline. This is especially true when Djokovic gets a look at an opponent’s second serve. Then, it’s anybody’s point.

On Sunday, in the U.S. Open men’s final, Djokovic faced Juan Martín del Potro, of Argentina, , who is one of tennis’ biggest servers. Djokovic won in three sets—6–3, 7–6 (4), 6–3— earning his third U.S. Open championship and his fourteenth major win. He put eighty per cent of del Potro’s serves in play and won points on half of del Potro’s second serves. That is what established his margin of victory.

Neutralizing a serve is canny. But it is not terribly exciting. It’s methodical and can lead to the sort of tennis that causes your less enthusiastic friend to say, “How can you watch tennis?” The men’s final, for considerable stretches, was somewhat dreary, like the weather that the retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium was keeping out. There were too many exchanges in which the players were hitting just-keep-things-going rally balls, especially on those neutralized points when del Potro was serving. There were dozens of unforced errors by both players, often, inexplicably, on those rally balls. There were few dazzling points. The crowd was for del Potro—chants of “Olé, olé-olé-olé, DEL-po, DEL-po” rose between nearly every point. Delpo is a favorite in New York, despite the fact that he upset the beloved Roger Federer in the 2009 Open final, or maybe because he did. He’s a gentle giant, a fiercely competitive humanitarian, a world-class hugger. Djokovic is a hugger, too, but he gets no love from New York, or he hasn’t, anyway, in any of the six Open finals that I’ve watched him play in person. (He’s made it to eight total.) Appreciation, sure, but not love. He’s the Ivan Lendl of this decade. But then Lendl never really cared to pursue your love.

Nonetheless, Djokovic went about his business, blocking out the cheers for his first-serve faults and the shouts and jeers as he prepared to serve his second. (He’s heard worse: when he faced Federer in the 2015 final, the rain-delayed, alcohol-infused crowd reached near-hooligan levels of heckling.) In the eighth game of the first set, with del Potro serving down 3–4, Djokovic fought back from 40–0 to break him. I was seated behind Craig O’Shannessy, who has written widely on tennis strategy for years and, more recently, has worked with Djokovic’s coaching team, collecting data and advising on tactics. He marvelled at the returns that got Djokovic to break point. “Deep! Deep! Deep!” he shouted over his shoulder.

Djokovic’s most Djokovician display, though, came in the fourth game of the third set. In the previous set, Djokovic had worked himself to a tiebreak with del Potro and then won it, not only by returning well but by relentlessly directing his groundstrokes to del Potro’s backhand, which lacks the sting and direction-changing possibilities that it once had, a consequence of numerous surgeries to his left wrist. In the fourth game of the third set, Djokovic launched a hard, low, second-serve return and moved forward for a volley winner; he blocked a hundred-and-twenty-seven miles-per-hour serve to begin a rally that would net him a break point; and then, on a second break point, he returned a serve right at Delpo’s feet, forcing him to awkwardly backpedal and pop up a hurried forehand, which Djokovic reached before it bounced and put away for a winner. Though the two would trade service breaks later in the set, the match was essentially over right there. At more than three hours, the match was long for a three-setter, and it felt even longer. But there was no drama, really, just a creeping sense of inevitability. That’s how Djokovic accomplishes what he does.

He’s had quite a summer. He won Wimbledon and now the U.S. Open. His fourteen major wins ties him with Pete Sampras. One more win and he’ll join Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal as the top three all-time men’s Grand Slam winners—in case you needed more proof that this has been a golden age of men’s tennis. When I’d last been in a stadium watching Djokovic play, in March, he was crashing out of the second round at Indian Wells, losing to a qualifier, his elbow on the mend and his confidence in need of attention. He will leave New York ranked No. 3 in the world, behind only Nadal and Federer. But each of them clearly knows, in his way, who is playing the best tennis just now. Those returns of Djokovic mark his return.