Before the US Open began there was a common, snarky refrain from commentators and sports writers regarding Novak Djokovic. In New York the 23 year old Serbian could achieve a career grand slam...in retirements.
No one, including myself, had much faith in the guy. When he first burst onto the tennis scene a few years ago, I loved to watch him. He had an abundance of talent sure, but also a knack for comedy and theatrics on the court. When he won a big match he tore his shirt in half. He did exaggerated but spot-on imitations of the other players, including Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova. He was a brash kid, a welcome burst of rebellious, cocky energy amidst the gentlemanly politeness and deference of Nadal and Federer. And he was good. Good enough to reach the finals of the US Open and win the Australian Open in 2008.
And then something happened. It began with frequent retirements, pulling out of the semifinals of a Grand Slam due to less than clear reasons. He was still a solid number three in the world, he still won most of the matches he should have won. But it was the matches he could have won, the ones against the top guys, the ones he would have had to fight for-those were the matches that began to slip away. Over and over again I watched him get to the semis of majors, a respectable result sure, but one that shouldn't have been enough, not for a player with his talent, not for any player who wanted to seriously challenge the Nadal/Federer stranglehold on the big titles.
There were more retirements, more chokes, and it started to seem that Novak Djokovic was destined to be a perpetual number three in the world, a guy who would always have decent results without really trying, but someone who didn't have the heart or the guys to go further. And then Saturday afternoon came. Nadal was already a lock in the final after beating Youzhny in the other semi-final and it seemed that everyone was already envisioning a Federer/Nadal showdone. The Federer/Djokovic semi might be entertaining, but Djokovic couldn't seriously challenge the 16 time grand slam winner, not at the US Open, where he had lost to Federer the previous three years.
Djokovic would lose to Federer yet again this year, or so the prevailing wisdom went. But apparently no one told Novak Djokovic. Because this year, this match, something shifted. As the match went on, into the fifth set, I kept waiting for the inevitable. Djokovic would start shanking shots, making blatant errors and throw away the match. Or he would call a trainer, have some sudden injury that prevented him from finishing the match. Maybe he'd just collapse on the court this time.
But none of that happened. We all waited for the Djokovic of the last two years to emerge, but instead someone new showed up on that court. This was a Djokovic with fight and guts and courage. This was a Djokovic who fended off two match points, not by waiting for Federer to miss, but by going for his shots, hitting the lines with gusto and verve. This was a Djokovic who was no longer content to be number three, who didn't care that Anna Wintour and Gavin Rossdale were in Federer's box, that most of the stadium was pulling for Federer. This was a Djokovic who was finally living up to his talent, being the player we all hoped he could be. And as a tennis fan there's nothing more rewarding than that. Because more often the player we want to see never arrives. More often we watch men crumble under pressure, fall apart at the seams because they don't have that essential, iron willed belief.
What Novak Djokovic did on Ashe Stadium yesterday was beautiful and brave. It was a promise realized, a promise we had almost forgotten was ever there in the first place. I can't wait to see what he does next.