Why the match between Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro mattered more than you realized

Call it one of the greatest set rallies in tennis history. Or call it the most heartbreaking loss at a Grand Slam tournament in the Open era. In any case, it was significant enough to get the most attention of the long-running drama and weeping of the first three sets of the semi-final between Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro.

The most important championship of Novak Djokovic’s career turned into a decade in the making. Decades in the making, Djokovic was supposed to be cementing his legacy as the greatest player of his generation by winning his fourth U.S. Open and first Grand Slam tournament win since the Australian Open a year ago. In the very second set of that match, Djokovic looked destined to make that happen. But the remarkable momentum switch went out the window after a hold at 5-5 in the second set. Del Potro went on a tear that included a break, a hold and a love hold for love, complete with a ferocious forehand volley that fell at his feet, and a serving call that went against him as well.

His staggering run continued into the third set, which he already had won by taking six of the seven games, including two breaks. After taking an early lead in the fourth set, Djokovic let it slip away when he lost three games in a row to be broken at love and double break to trail 3-5. Now down 4-5, his determination to win was replaced by the ghost of John McEnroe’s teary Wimbledon collapse. Djokovic began sobbing at the sight of his daughter, who was cheering from the stands.

He had won the second set for the first time since 2011, but there was no escaping the past. He missed two chances to return and the game went to deuce. Then Djokovic was called for two foot faults and was broken to make it 5-5. He chased after a perfectly placed drop shot from Del Potro, but nothing but net was left. Djokovic hit three consecutive shots into the net to make it 7-5, and the tears flowed as he served for the match. His back was to the wall. But a serve led to a break and he served out the match at love, sending him home as the runner-up for the first time since 2010.

No one on the court could let it go and a noisy crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium began to get riled up. On one side of the net, the man he had tried so hard to make look as bad as possible and to lose the match to was beginning to break out into “Ole!” chants. For all the talk of Roger Federer’s new back, one man showed no weakness. And yet, here’s the thing. What he showed in defeat was far more significant than anyone really knew.

Djokovic, who won his first U.S. Open title in 2008, seemed to be burdened with the shadow of history and weight of expectation. He seemed old for a 26-year-old. In three out of his five major tournament finals this year, the expectations were much higher than Djokovic thought they should be. After his humbling loss, he acknowledged that he’d been inconsistent and that he struggled to stay focused on one thing.

He lost his mind on court, because he lost focus. Because he was carried by his emotions rather than his tennis, and as a result, because he was denied his crown in the U.S. Open final.

What was more significant? That he had been so mentally primed, ready to get over a huge hurdle in his career and he couldn’t. It was an accomplishment to be written in stone, to have a win to hold over his career, to have a legion of adoring fans cheering for you and sending you the ball every time you picked it up. And now he has it all to lose, essentially. Novak Djokovic, the American dream.

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