It had to be Daniil, didn’t it? The long, brash Russian seemingly spent the past two years gearing up for just this moment, playing to the whims of various audiences and knocking on the door of his first Slam title without ever kicking it entirely in. He had very openly been thinking about it, and since Dominic Thiem finally broke through the Big Three née Four’s hegemony with his first Slam title at Flushing Meadows a year ago, it seemed that Daniil Medvedev would soon enter the chat himself.
Djokovic v. Medvedev, the top two seeds facing each other, was the logical end, and the one that most wanted: even after Novak’s dressing down of Daniil in straight sets in Melbourne in January, there was a feeling that the latter was gearing up all along for another match with the current best player on the planet. He got it, and with nothing less than a calendar Slam on the line.
Only fitting, then, that it was like this: the 2021 US Open men’s final featured two players with aggressively robust profiles of their respective relationships with the crowd. Novak Djokovic, whose career is a longform letter to performatively not giving a fuck while the alternative is very obviously the case, arrived in New York with three Slams in hand this year already. He had a shot at the calendar Slam, something last accomplished by Steffi Graf in 1988 and by a man, Rod Laver, in 1969.
All of it, really, was fitting, from their respective top seedings to the injury-related absences of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Djokovic’s year has been one of transcendence: transcending opponents, critics, an ongoing global health crisis, your own personal opinion of him, etc.
That Djokovic immediately emerged as one of the faces of defiance when uncertainty abounded certainly didn’t afford him any credibility, and his early-2020 tour of his native Serbia, as well as the rhetoric he espoused contemporaneously, made him a target, not altogether unfairly. Here was a man who was seemingly placed on this planet to play tennis, just about better than anybody before him. What else should anyone worry about?
A lot, as it turned out, but even with Novak’s own contraction of the disease, he remained unnerved. He had won the 2020 Australian Open in traditional fashion, knocking off Thiem in a continuance of the era of elder respect for which men’s tennis likely did not plan. Though he went winless at majors for the remainder of the year, his omnipresence as the robotic Serbian demigod of hard courts and otherwise lingered.
The return win in straight sets over Medvedev at this year’s Aussie Open made it clear that he was fine; more than that, his victory over a somewhat hobbled Nadal in the final at the French Open revealed that Novak Djokovic was serious about this whole “best ever” thing, after years of tirelessly chasing Federer and Nadal in both numbers and public opinion.
Medvedev had made the splash two years ago, in a public challenge to the crowd and to Rafael Nadal himself that he would not back down. His combination of wisp and wire made him a compelling figure on-court, and his pushing back against public favoritism in any direction turned him into a viral hero. Americans, in particular, tend to gravitate toward someone doing well who asks them in response: “What do you want me to do?”
Djokovic struggled – and is still struggling in some circumstances – under the weight of trying to fulfill the crowd’s obligations. He can eat grass, and win; he can play technically perfect tennis, and lose; he can succeed and fail, somehow, just like everybody else. Why didn’t they like him?
Until a few years ago, this was an idea central to Novak Djokovic’s career arc. He had earned it! Why didn’t they see it? “I have as many majors as their beloved Feds and Rafas. They are inane; I am resplendent.”
With this year’s pursuit of the calendar Slam, however, fans took to Nole: it had been a long-turning tide that he finally and fully flipped. History takes precedence, even when nobody is going to be left to speak on the lasting relevance of it all.
Daniil Medvedev, though, was having none of it: it took barely a set and a half of exceptional pushes from the upstart to push Djokovic into smashing a racquet, drawing the judge’s warning in the process. Medvedev plays frustrating tennis by nature, and he catered it specifically to perhaps the most frustrating tennis player ever is objectively funny, even if it hadn’t worked.
But it did, and it kept working. Djokovic entered the match having dropped first sets in four straight matches before coming back to win; he didn’t even bother taking a single set in this final, even after laughing during a changeover. John McEnroe read ESPN production credits in the third before the broadcast crew pondered whether Djokovic thought he had a comeback left in him. “In his ultimate heart of hearts,” one unidentifiable McEnroe brother said, “I think he does. 80% of him doesn’t.”
You don’t get to be Novak Djokovic without fervently believing that everything you are doing, in that specific way, is correct. It has worked out for him in ways it will never work out for the rest of us. On this Sunday, though, it did not: in the shadows of the teenage wunderkinds who impressed on the women’s side, he had to know something was coming, eventually. Daniil Medvedev played, specifically, Djokovic’s game better than the man himself could. Anybody in pursuit of history will be able to appreciate that either way, eventually.
 After the match, his opponent admitted that he had Medvedev won over, for whatever that’s worth.