US Open: Gluten-Free, Adoration-Free Djokovic Captures Tenth Slam

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By Bill Simons

Novak Djokovic is not only gluten-free, he’s adoration-free.

“C’mon!”

“You cannot be serious!”

This guy is a humanitarian. He’s a family man with a loving wife and cute kid. He’s beloved by those who know him. He’s survived brutal bombs and silly brouhahas. He’s a Renaissance guy who grew up listening to classical music and reading Russian poets. These days he doesn’t hesitate to offer deep-think reflections. He’s a Christian who visits Buddhist temples and notes the importance of mood and meditation. “I like to be in the creative spirit all the time,” he told the New York Times. “Everybody is moving – the people, our planet – so you either keep up with it or you just stay where you are. But staying wherever you are, you actually regress.”

And Novak has progressed. Oh, dear, we almost forgot to mention that he’s now – by far – the best tennis player in the world.

But popularity is a jealous mistress. The in-group is elusive. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. For all her talent and trophies, courage and caring, Martina Navratilova couldn’t blunt the popularity of cute, chirpy Chris Evert – our Chrissie.

Ivan Lendl won eight Slams. Still, he was said to be “the man who could empty stadiums.” The headline claimed he was “the champion nobody cared about.” But unlike Lendl, the public Djokovic is far from glum. He’s a charming cut-up who adores laughter almost as much as he loves the limelight. He’s not only fun-loving – he’s real.

He’ll roar in triumph or curse like a sailor. There’s little mystery.

Djokovic is a meticulous craftsman, the ultimate professional. His game is superb, but mechanical and full of gritty grimaces, painful pivots and testy stretches. Pretty it’s not. Often we wince.  He’s got a retro crew cut. His angular face and ripped body impress – but his Uniqlo outfits don’t do him any favors.

Plus, the Serbian is “the man from nowhere,” a small country we bombed long ago, a distant land not on your summer itinerary.

Most of all, Novak has long labored in the shadow of two consuming idols. He has little of the hunky muscularity and magnetic appeal of Spaniard Rafa Nadal, with his whiplash forehand and darling dimples. Worse yet, he pales before the dreamy beauty of Roger Federer, who so effortlessly combines power and grace, art and sport.

Still, Djokovic was having his best year since 2011. He became just the third player in history to reach the finals of all four Slams. But Federer, as at Wimbledon, had been on a roll. He beat Novak rather handily in the Cincinnati Masters tournament.

In his first US Open final in six years, Federer was hoping to win his first Slam since 2010.

But he came out tight, his usual Swiss precision out of sync. His play was halting, and surprisingly inelegant. He suffered 15 first-set errors. In contrast, Djokovic played his usual impenetrable defense. Serving well, attacking Federer’s backhand, winning scramble points, the 28-year old in his prime suffered a nasty tumble, but his level did not fall. While not at his best, he was good enough, slapping a dandy forehand winner to capture the first set, 6-4.

The play of the demigod Federer was less than heavenly. Now, certainly Djokovic would march to his third Slam of the year and his first US Open since 2011.

But don’t forget what Rumi – the Sufi mystic and tennis sage – advised eons ago: “Hall of Love has ten thousand swords. Don’t be afraid to use one.”

So, to the delight of the throng, after 50 minutes, Federer unsheathed his SABR attack. But early in the set, he couldn’t convert five break points. When Djokovic hit a fabulous backhand off an overhead, he tapped his inner Roberta Vinci and roared to the crowd.

The pro-Federer partisans didn’t buy it, and Federer soldiered on. In the tenth game, some 15 minutes long, Roger had two set points. But the Swiss could not summit. His level now high, Roger attacked. Roger charged the net. Roger hit sublime backhands. As Robert Redford looked on, the ATP elder suddenly seemed like the Sundance Kid. Somewhere in New York there was a fountain of youth. 

On his fourth set point, the 34-year-old uncorked a wondrous cross-court backhand. Ashe Stadium exploded, as only it can. The old man won the second set, 7-5.

Roger that!

Novak ripped off his shirt.

The 42nd Djokovic-Federer battle would now be a best of three sets face-off. But Roger had never beaten the Serb in a five-set marathon. And beware Novak when he loses the second set. Three times at this year’s Open he had roared back after losing the second set.

Now that pattern continued – as did Roger’s patterns. Eight times he flashed his bold SABR tactic. But, as in the recent past, his explosiveness waned as the match went on.

More than anything, Roger just could not pounce on his opportunities. In the third set alone, he faltered on four of five break points. He couldn’t handle the pace of Novak’s passing blasts, and his usually potent forehand went awry. Later he conceded he just couldn’t execute at crunch time – and for good reason.

Djokovic showed why he is the best: his defense was sublime. On break points he was a quick-fire goalie flicking a shot away. He was an explosive defensive back stretching to knock down a pass. He was a baseball reliever shutting down the heart of the order in the ninth.

Novak explained the key to the match. In the third set, he said, “When I managed to break at 4-all and managed to hold after saving [a] couple break points at 5-4 and winning the third set, that obviously gave me a huge wind in the back, and I managed to play really well after that.”

Novak quickly broke twice in the fourth set and went up 5-2. The crowd willed Federer to come back – chanting his name, applauding when Novak missed a serve, and calling out taunts to distract the Serb.

But there was no distracting the savvy competitor. His focus, his will, his consistency once again coalesced. No matter that the throng howled, hoping his foe would prevail.  No matter that Roger charged back in the fourth set to break serve – a last hope.

Novak – moving with dazzling speed, serving well, and defending brilliantly in breathless rallies – saved 19 of 23 break points – incredible! And just like at Wimbledon, he won going away – 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.

In the awards ceremony, a gracious Federer said matches like this teach you a lot about your opponent and yourself. And tonight we learned something about Federer’s foe. Despite his fierce expressions and gritty play, he proved he is the most dominant player of the best generation in tennis history. He’s won three Slams this year, and he reached the French Open final, where a zoning Stan Wawrinka beat him. He now has won ten Slams, just one behind Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver. And, after the awards ceremony wound down, the crowd finally began to chant, “Novak, Novak, Novak.”

Djokovic – the Rodney Dangerfield of tennis – is still gluten-free. But, at least for one fleeting moment, this grand champion and good man was not adoration-free.