NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic completed his comeback summer, winning the U.S. Open for his 14th Grand Slam singles title on Sunday.
Djokovic mitigated the power of Juan Martin del Potro 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3 in a final that was tighter than the straight-set score — Djokovic led, 49 points to 48, after the 95-minute middle frame.
Djokovic dedicated it, “to the support of the loved ones, my kids, my wife, my small team of people that has been there with me through difficult times.”
The 31-year-old Serb tied Pete Sampras for third on the men’s career Slams list, trailing Roger Federer (20) and Rafael Nadal (17).
“The first actually thing I saw related to tennis on the TV was [Sampras’] first or second Wimbledon championship,” Djokovic said. “That inspired me to start playing tennis.”
Djokovic earned his second straight major title after winning Wimbledon two months ago. The Wimbledon crown was bigger. It marked his first Slam in 26 months, since he he held all four titles at once after the 2016 French Open.
Djokovic spent the better part of two years in a funk. He cited “private issues” in summer 2016, split from coach Boris Becker that fall, was coached by Andre Agassi for less than a year, missed the 2017 U.S. Open for an elbow injury, then underwent surgery to fix it in January.
It took a few months, but Djokovic rejoined the Big Three with Federer and Nadal with his Wimbledon crown in July. After the U.S. Open, no doubt he is back atop the sport, no matter he is third in the new ATP rankings behind the other titans.
At the start of 2017, as Djokovic faded, Federer and Nadal had their returns to the top by combining to win six straight Slams.
After Djokovic lost to 72nd-ranked Italian Marco Cecchinato in the French Open quarterfinals in June, he hiked in the French mountains with his wife for five days. He remembered one peak in particular that took three hours to scale.
“We sat down and we just looked at the world from that perspective, just kind of breathed in the new inspiration, new motivation,” Djokovic said. “I thought of tennis, thought of the emotion that tennis provokes in me in a way. It was all positives. I just felt like I had a new breath for this sport. The rest is history.”
Djokovic came back to win both summer Slams, going 22-1 in four tournaments from Wimbledon through the U.S. Open. He beat Nadal for the first time in two years at Wimbledon. He played Federer for the first time in two years, and swept him in Cincinnati last month.
Now, they make up the top three in the ATP rankings for the first time since May 2015.
“Maybe 10 years ago I would say I’m not so happy to be part of this era with Nadal and Federer,” said Djokovic, who at this time a decade ago was 2-7 against Federer and 4-10 against Nadal. Now, he leads both head-to-heads. “Actually today I am. I really am. I feel like these guys, rivalries with these guys, matches with Federer and Nadal, have made me the player I am.”
Del Potro made sure these last two weeks, if not this entire season, that he is part of the discussion moving forward. Playing all four Slams for the first time since 2012, he made the third round in Australia, the semifinals at the French and the quarters at Wimbledon. He faced Nadal in three of the four majors.
Del Potro reached a career-high ranking of No. 3, four wrist surgeries and eight years after becoming No. 4.
At 29, two years younger than Djokovic, he can see the Serb, plus Federer and Nadal, and know that playing title-worthy tennis in your 30s, after physical setbacks, is realistic.
Del Potro contemplated retiring in 2015, during a two-year stretch where he played just two tournaments and his ranking fell to No. 1,045.
At one point, the gentle giant missed 14 out of 28 Grand Slams in a seven-year stretch. What could have been if not for the wrist problems. If not for the presence of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, who combined to win 47 of the last 55 majors.
“I don’t feel sad that I couldn’t win Grand Slams because of them,” del Potro said. “I am just one of the guys that have lucky to be in the same era as them.”
Djokovic stopped his trophy-presentation interview to congratulate his friend.
“For what he has done in the last four or five years,” Djokovic said. “Still having faith, having belief in himself that one day he’s going to be a top player, and he’s going to be fighting for Grand Slams. … I know that he’s going to be here again with the champion’s trophy.”
Del Potro has said the fans, those boisterous supporters in the Albiceleste jerseys, were his motivation to endure. They made their presence known inside a closed-roof Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday, forcing chair umpire Alison Hughes‘ refrain: Ladies and gentlemen, please.
A quote from del Potro after his breakthrough 2009 win here is again apropos today.
“I have new opportunities in the other Grand Slams to win, because if I did here, if I beat Nadal, Federer and many good players, maybe I can do one more time,” he said then. “But of course, will be difficult.”Follow @nzaccardi