When the train of history stops before reaching the last station: Djokovic and his most bitter night

Tennis is still unable to find a player capable of winning the Grand Slam, the four major tournaments in the same season. With a tie at 20 titles, the duel between Djokovic, Federer and Nadal moves to 2022.


Sep 12, 2021; Flushing, NY, USA; Novak Djokovic of Serbia is overcome with emotion against Daniil Medvedev of Russia (not pictured) in the men's singles final on day fourteen of the 2021 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 12, 2021; Flushing, NY, USA; Novak Djokovic of Serbia is overcome with emotion against Daniil Medvedev of Russia (not pictured) in the men's singles final on day fourteen of the 2021 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

Wanting something, and wanting it badly, even too badly, can lead you to success. Or it can get you off the train when it’s about to reach the last station. That’s what happened to Novak Djokovic on Sunday night in New York. He was one step away from the greatest feat in modern tennis, but the pressure and Daniil Medvedev ate him up.

“I’ve never been made to feel like this in New York,” the Serb said, his eyes red-rimmed with tears after falling 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 to Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, who won his first Grand Slam title.

Sep 12, 2021; Flushing, NY, USA; Daniil Medvedev of Russia speaks to the crowd during the trophy presentation ceremony as Novak Djokovic of Serbia (L) listens after their match in the men's singles final on day fourteen of the 2021 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 12, 2021; Flushing, NY, USA; Daniil Medvedev of Russia speaks to the crowd during the trophy presentation ceremony as Novak Djokovic of Serbia (L) listens after their match in the men's singles final on day fourteen of the 2021 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

The tears were understandable: Djokovic was one win away from succeeding Australian Rod Laver as Grand Slam owner, which is how winning all four major tennis tournaments in the same season is known. 

The Golden Slam feat had been thwarted last month in Tokyo, where Djokovic fell short of the gold medal at the Olympics.

Laver, 82, watched from the front row of the box at Arthur Ashe Stadium. And what he saw was clear: his second Grand Slam, the one he threaded in 1969, remains the ultimate precedent. Djokovic, winner of 27 consecutive matches in Grand Slam tournaments this year, champion of Australia, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and US Open finalist, could not achieve it.

Sep 10, 2021; Flushing, NY, USA; International Tennis Hall of Famer Rod Laver (M) waves to the crowd during the match between Daniil Medvedev of Russia and Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada (both not pictured) on day twelve of the 2021 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 10, 2021; Flushing, NY, USA; International Tennis Hall of Famer Rod Laver (M) waves to the crowd during the match between Daniil Medvedev of Russia and Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada (both not pictured) on day twelve of the 2021 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The first consequence, very clear, is that tennis extends to 2022 the exciting fight between Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the number of Grand Slam titles. Each has 20, and although the Serb has accelerated a lot and at the expense of his two rivals in recent years, the Swiss and the Spaniard have the idea of continuing to add next year. Unless Federer decides that 40 years old is enough and it is time for retirement. 

For now there are no signs in that direction, but there is another obstacle in addition to the usual rivals: the new generation begins to knock on heaven’s doors. Thus, 2022 could be a season to remember.

The second consequence, more profound, is that winning the Grand Slam is evidenced, year after year, as something almost impossible. Many geniuses of the racquet have made tennis great in the last half century, but none of them could emulate Laver, who is also the owner of another Grand Slam, although that one was in the amateur era, in 1962.

What happened to Djokovic this Sunday? He arrived with five and a half hours more than Medvedev battling on the cement of Flushing Meadows. It could be thought that physically he was not fresh, but the key was mental: the Serb wanted victory so much, he had dreamed so much of closing once and for all the debate about who is the best of all time, that his arm stiffened and his racquet trembled.

Human, at last, but ambitious nonetheless: in the midst of his most bitter night, the 34-year-old Serb found a reason for joy, the support given to him by a public that has historically been against him in New York. And, in highlighting that and thanking the support, the world number one was, no less, paving his way to 2022. He dreams of being, in a year’s time, on the same train, but this time actually making it to the last station.