Twelve months ago, Novak Djokovic didn’t even play the US Open, sidelined as he tried to heal an ongoing elbow injury naturally.
As recently as February, he was going under the knife to address the elbow injury that just wasn’t going away.
Now, he is the reigning Wimbledon and US Open champion, back in the top three, and the most in-form player in the game.
It has been quite the return to form.
“If you told me in February this year when I got the surgery that I’d win Wimbledon, the US Open and Cincinnati, it would be hard to believe,” he said after defeating Juan Martin del Potro in straight sets at Flushing Meadows on Sunday.
“But at the same time there was always part of me that imagined and believed and hoped that I can get back on the desired level of tennis very soon. I expected, to be honest, after surgery, that I would be on a high level quite fast. But it took me actually three or four months, really.
“In that process, I learned a lot about myself and learned to be patient, which was never really a stronger side of me.
“The last two months have been terrific.”
During that time, Djokovic has won 22 of 23 matches; his only loss in that span came in the last 16 to Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Toronto Masters.
With his victory on Sunday, he has now completed three Wimbledon-US Open doubles (2011, 2015 and 2018) and owns 14 Grand Slam trophies, a haul that puts him level with idol Pete Sampras.
“There is a lot of significance of me being now shoulder to shoulder in terms of Grand Slams wins with him. It’s truly incredible,” Djokovic said.
“I watched him win one of his first Wimbledon championships and I grew up playing and thinking that one day I’ll be able to do what he does. And to actually be here, it’s a dream come true.”
Djokovic was actually rounding into this kind of form as early as the clay-court season, when he reached the semifinals in Rome.
He suffered a stinging loss to Marco Cecchinato in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros but that instead seemed to fuel him; in his next event he reached the final at Queen’s Club before going all the way at Wimbledon.
There is also the motivation provided by the presence of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who sit ahead of him on the tally of major titles won.
He credited the legendary duo, who used to beat him regularly on the Grand Slam stage, with forcing him to improve his game to the point where he could turn the tables.
“For me it was always the ultimate challenge,” he said. “I think that (learning to contend with them) was one of the most important moments and periods of my tennis career, of my development – and I owe it to them.”
Del Potro is another player who has extended Djokovic over the years – although not to the same extent.
The Serb carried a 14-4 winning head-to-head record over the Argentine into Sunday’s final but had been pushed to the limit in most of their match-ups and lost both of their meetings at the Olympic Games in 2012 and 2016.
This was his first Grand Slam final in almost 10 years; the last came in 2009, when he won this tournament with a five-set triumph over Roger Federer before his career was derailed due to multiple wrist surgeries.
“I’m very sad for being a loser today but Novak deserved to take the trophy,” he said.
“I’m feeling good, my wrist is responding good, because I’ve been playing a lot of matches these two weeks. I feel good with my two-handed backhands, and I will keep playing tennis for a few more years.
“I am excited to keep surprising myself doing things like this and I’m very motivated to keep trying to win these titles.”
The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd was firmly behind the Argentine, a lovable figure in the game who engenders great sympathy due to his injury struggles – the passionate chants of “olé Delpo!” from the many Argentinian fans in the crowd added an atmospheric touch.
“You can lose or win a trophy but the love from the crowd it could be even bigger than the tournament,” Del Potro said. “And that’s what I got from them and it will be in my heart for the rest of the life.”
Djokovic even found it inspiring.
“This might sound funny to you, but my nickname is Nole. So when they shout ‘olé, olé, olé’, that’s what I hear (laughter). I actually make myself hear that, to be honest, without no word of a lie. I really do,” he said.
“But at the same time they were very respectful to me. They created a great atmosphere, I thought. It was electrifying.”
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