By now you’re probably too familiar with the concept of Novak Djokovic winning Grand Slam finals. By mentally evolving into an indestructible beast. By physically wearing humans across the net down. By being the best version of his efficient self on that day.
By flaunting an enterprising side to floor his opponent?
That’s where the 2023 US Open triumph that gave Djokovic his 24th Grand Slam title, all too similar to his previous 23 in terms of its conclusion, stands out in terms of its craft.
The 6-3, 7-6(5), 6-3 win over Russia’s Daniil Medvedev at the Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday was a typical Djokovic spectacle playing an atypical Djokovic game.
The typical bit about it? The Serb adding self-written chapters to tennis’ history books — record-tying 24th major, oldest men’s singles US Open champion and so on (we could go on for as long as the 36-year-old plans to continue doing this). The atypical bit about it? The baseline bully’s net work — serve and volleying 22 times while winning 20 points and pocketing 37 of the 44 points at the net.
Djokovic had resorted to the serve and volley — tennis’ most traditional play largely gone out of fashion — all of eight times across his previous six matches in New York. The most number of times that he came to the net over the last two weeks before Sunday was in his five-set turnaround against Laslo Djere (32).
Against Medvedev, the man who spectacularly beat him in straight sets for the 2021 title, a 19-shot rally that kicked off the final set the tone for a physical baseline battle. Winning that point, off went a dialled in Djokovic (apologies, Ben Shelton).
Then, he came in quite a lot. Twice in his next two service games, Djokovic serve and volleyed back-to-back. He lost the point on his first attempt but won the next three against Medvedev returning — to borrow Carlos Alcaraz’s term — from his house.
While the lanky Russian chose to remain in his comfort zone for the majority of the final, Djokovic rushed out of it. And, he did that on the big points when, usually and invariably, players tend to stick to their tried and tested ways.
In the eighth game of the second set after the lengthy exchanges appeared to catch up with Djokovic’s legs — it was amplified by him falling on the court on the back of a brutal 31-shot rally — he faced his first break point the match. He saved it by serving and half-volleying the return from around his right ankle to near the left service line of the court. In the 12th game serving to stay in the set, Djokovic, after stretching his legs and twice double-faulting, faced his first set point of the match. He saved it by throwing in another serve and volley and staying at the net to kill the point. It kept him alive for a tiebreaker, where Djokovic has activated another level this season.
The 36-year-old, from a 105-minute second set termed “armwrestling” by Medvedev on which his rival was running on fumes for more than half, marched ahead playing brave and quick on the pressure points.
There is a great deal to admire about the statistical greatest of all time in tennis. His ever-improving fitness standards defying the ever-ticking age clock. His mental resilience when confronted with hurdles along the pathway and moments of history (Djokovic spoke about learning from that 2021 final defeat chasing a rare Calendar Slam and not thinking too much about the magnitude of his impending feat this time). His perfection-mirroring level of the game that rarely cracks.
How about being constantly on the lookout to improve facets of his game, well into age thirties and Slam twenties, and having the heart and mind to adapt to it when the match-up demands?
“You need to re-invent yourself,” Djokovic said after the final. “As a 36-year-old competing with 20-year-olds, I have to do it probably more than ever.
“There are always some things that I’m trying to add to get my performances up at least by a few percent. It’s a constant process of trying to get better, and trying to implement certain things that work for you.”
Perhaps something to note there for the “20-year-olds”. Sure, go in with the Plan A but do have a Plan B, and don’t be wary of pulling it out. Throughout the match, Medvedev knew what was coming, and from where. Most of the times, Djokovic went with the serve and volley tactic while serving out wide from the deuce court (he even did so once behind his second serve). Yet Medvedev stayed put deep behind the baseline for his returns.
“True,” Medvedev said when asked if Djokovic’s serve and volley game was the key on Sunday. “I probably should’ve been less stubborn and change my (return) position. I tried to change in my mind what I was doing on my return… and I just didn’t manage to put the ball in the court, or put the ball where I wanted to, many times.
“I should’ve been less stubborn and gone forward earlier in the match. I only started doing it a little bit in the third set, but (by then) the match was a different story.”
A repeat story: Djokovic going all the way in a Grand Slam for the 24th time. A refreshing story: Djokovic, the serve and volleyer, winning the 2023 US Open final.