After a deeply satisfied Novak Djokovic had put his racket away following another job well done on Friday night, in the post-match interview of his five-set win over Alexander Zverev the interviewer started a question by listing all of the potential achievements on the line in his final match. As soon as Djokovic understood where the question was going, he cut the question off: “I’m going for a fourth US Open, that’s all I’m thinking about," hy het gesê, smiling.
Further prompts about Djokovic’s grand slam attempt followed: “It’s there, it’s there,” said Djokovic. “I know that people would like to hear me talk about it, but there is not much to talk about. There’s only one match left. All in, all in. Let’s do it. I’m going to put my heart and my soul and my head into that one. I’m going to treat my next match like it is the last match of my career.”
This was not the first time this happened. Djokovic was also understandably not too interested in speaking about the subject in detail after his quarter-final and he later explained that being constantly prompted about the subject leads him to think too much about it, which can “burden” him mentally. He has already said plenty.
Few champions have mastered the knack of speaking openly about their goals and then going out and achieving them, and so this underlines how uniquely difficult the grand slam is to achieve. The sporting challenge of winning all 28 matches in a year is unfathomably difficult alone, but keeping your head throughout as people constantly remind you of the magnitude of the achievement at times seems unbearable.
And yet, six matches down, Djokovic continues to handle it supremely well. In terms of his pure level, this has been far from the greatest tournament of his life. Djokovic has conceded six sets to reach the final and he has frequently started slowly, losing the first set in four consecutive matches. But his mental strength has defined his tournament. Each time he was down, as against Zverev, he retorted immediately and refused to let go.
Awaiting him in the final is a player whose route could not have contrasted more. While Djokovic has clinched only one win in straight sets, Daniil Medvedev, the second seed, has conceded just one set. He has navigated the tournament with all of his assets on show, combining enormous serving, consistent returning and maddening defence with his intelligence around the court.
His presence in the sport continues to grow. He has now reached two grand slam finals this year and two finals in three years at the US Open. But while it reflects extremely well on Medvedev that he has been able to do so while playing within himself, he has faced only two top 50 opponents. Djokovic, who Medvedev has never beaten over best of five sets despite winning three of their last five meetings, will require him to raise his level several steps higher and it still may not be enough.
At the Australian Open this year, Medvedev had served supremely enough in his semi-final for his defeated opponent, Stefanos Tsitsipas, to compare his serve to that of the 6ft 10in John Isner. Twee dae later, Medvedev spent large parts of the final against Djokovic having to scoop second balls from his laces as the Serb deflected returns straight to his feet for two hours. It served as a reminder of just how the No 1 rises to the moment, saving his best match of the tournament for the final and winning in straight sets.
There is no more essential quality in Djokovic’s arsenal for the match to come. During his press conference on Friday night, he said that it may well be the most important match of his life. Many of the great players in recent decades would certainly crumble under the pressure. Should he succeed, Rod Laver, who in 1969 became the only man in the open era to win the grand slam, will be there in person to welcome Djokovic into a club he has occupied alone for 52 jare.