Officially, Juan Martin del Potro hit 31 clean winners in Sunday’s U.S. Open men’s final against Novak Djokovic. It could be argued that he hit at least double that number, except that the lunging, sprawling, contortionist Djokovic kept returning to sender.
It was a typical performance by Djokovic, the rubbery 31-year-old Serb, resulting in a 6-3,7-6 (4), 6-3 victory that gave him a 14th major-tournament title — equaling Pete Sampras and trailing only Roger Federer’s 20 and Rafael Nadal’s 17.
“I’m very sad for being a loser today,” del Potro said. “But Novak deserved to have the trophy. He played a great match, a very smart game. I was looking for winners with my forehand, backhand, but I couldn’t make it, because Novak was there every time.”
It was a match between friends who are evidence of modern medical success. Del Potro, the 29-year-old Argentinian who won the 2009 Open, is back at his best after a series of wrist surgeries, ranked a career high No. 3. Djokovic, winner of the 2011 and 2015 Opens and a former No. 1, is on a rollicking roll in recent months, including July’s Wimbledon title, since having elbow surgery in February.
To be playing at this level, del Potro said, “makes me feel alive again.” For Djokovic, too. “You learn when you’re down and things are not working out as you want them to,” he said. He has come to the conclusion that his time away during rehabilitation re-energized an already rousing career.
“I felt the six months off served me well,” Djokovic said, “to find new motivation, inspiration, to recharge my batteries, and also to understand how I want to continue playing tennis. That’s sometimes nice to have, even though you don’t want to be injured.”
As a snapshot of Sunday night’s match, the eighth game of the second set served quite well. Djokovic, up a set, was serving at 3-4 when the two proceeded to play 23 points. They went to deuce nine times. Djokovic saved three break points, but del Potro staved off six Djokovic game points before Djokovic at last converted to hold serve.
Amid the shouts and murmurs of a fully involved Ashe Stadium crowd — especially the del Potro friends who constantly raised “delPo” chants between points — the protagonists brought to that game overhead smashes, drop shots, volleys, scrambling defensive gets, searing passing shots, a double fault, cross-court rockets. They played 58 rallies of nine or more shots.
In a way, their duel was a microcosm of the two-week tournament, which became a long slog through torturous heat and humidity before a cool rain arrived for the weekend. The attrition rate included the elimination of five men’s Open champions and seven women’s champs.
As the match wore on, through the second-set tiebreak that del Potro led 3-1 only to lose with a handful of forehand errors, del Potro didn’t go flat so much as he began springing leaks. Precipitated, of course, by the persistent defensive work of Djokovic.
While the 6-6 del Potro relied on his long strides, the 6-2 Djokovic over and over demonstrated a sort of gymnastic telepathy — all agility and anticipation.
In one charge at the net, Djokovic picked a del Potro volley off his toes and sent back a winner. He won another point by tracking down two hard del Potro shots in the far corner, and another after somehow keeping two del Potro overhead smashes in play.
“These are pinnacles of our sport, the majors,” Djokovic said. “It’s where you want to play your best.” He did.