BELIEVE it or not, Novak Djokovic was not the favorite heading into the United States Open. It didn’t matter that he was just a month and a half removed from claiming the Wimbledon crown. As far as pundits and oddsmakers were concerned, the distinction belonged to Rafa Nadal, the very player he beat in a five-set, extra-games semifinal at the All England Club. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t really rounded into form until the grasscourt season began in June, and, even then, hadn’t won a title until he wrapped his arms around his 13th in a Grand Slam event.
If Djokovic felt any ill effects from undergoing elbow surgery in January, however, he didn’t show it. In fact, he publicly contended soon after going under the knife that, “after two years, I can finally play without pain.” Significantly, his tuneups for the US Open culminated in triumph at the Cincinnati Masters, making him the first in the sport’s history to complete the career Golden Masters. And with Flushing Meadows up next, he was riding a wave of momentum and goodwill that belied his underdog status.
In retrospect, Djokovic’s successful campaign was aided in no small measure by Federer’s ouster in the Round of 16; meeting decidedly overmatched John Millman instead, he promptly carved a path to the semifinals in straight sets. And after winning as expected against Kei Nishikori, he then saw his projected matchup with defending champion Nadal preempted by the latter’s withdrawal due to knee pain in the previous round.
Granted, Djokovic still had to contend with Juan Martin Del Potro in the final. Then again, all and sundry knew he was superior by far on DecoTurf against the third seed, against whom he so happened to have a dominant 13-4 career slate. And, to his credit, he delivered on his promise, the 25,000-strong crowd’s evident support for his opponent notwithstanding; the straight-sets shellacking had him tying Pete Sampras for third all time with 14 major titles.
Moving forward, Djokovic can realistically aim for an ascendant run similar to that which he carved through the first half of the decade. He may be 31 with a lot of mileage on the odometer, but there’s a reason his biggest rivals are even older. Advances in technology, training techniques, and fitness regimens have allowed the best of the best to stay in peak form longer than at any time in the sport’s annals. And, as his record shows, he’s at his finest when confidence envelops him. He’s happy at home, back with Marian Vajda on the courts, and again reaching for the stars with feet planted firmly on the ground.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.