Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, reacts to the crowd after defeating Ben Shelton, of the United States, during the men's singles semifinals of the U.S. Open tennis championships in New York. on Sept. 8, 2023. Credit - Manu Fernandez—AP
This won’t be the U.S. Open men’s final the world wanted, or really expected. Tennis fans were thirsting for a Novak Djokovic-Carlos Alcaraz clash at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Sunday. Alcaraz (No. 1) and Djokovic (No. 2) are the world’s top ranked players, and a rematch of their Wimbledon final from July, which Alcaraz won in five sets, seemed inevitable.
That wasn’t to be, as Daniil Medvedev of Russia—the world No. 3 whose emergence has been a bit overshadowed by the budding Alcaraz-Djokovic rivalry at the top of the men’s game—knocked Alcaraz out of the U.S. Open with a clinical 7-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 victory over the young Spanish star in Friday night’s semi final. So it’s Medvedev who will face Djokovic, who held off 20-year-old American upstart Ben Shelton in straight sets in Friday’s other semi, for the 2023 U.S. Open crown.
As consolation prizes go, Djokovic-Medvedez is a doozy. Djokovic will look to make more history: already the all-time leader in men’s Grand Slam titles, with 23, a win for Djokovic would tie him with Margaret Court for the all-time mark, with 24. Medvedev, meanwhile, is looking to stake his claim as a credible threat to replace Djokovic as the dominant men’s player, when and if Djokovic, 36, finally steps aside.
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What’s more, Medvedev has experience denying Djokovic glory in New York. This is a rematch of the 2021 U.S. Open final, when Djokovic was trying to become the first men’s player since Rod Laver in 1962—and the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988—to win all four majors in the same calendar year. But Medvedev obliterated Djokovic’s dream, via a straight-set blowout.
Medvedev looks primed to play spoiler once again. He was excellent against Alcaraz, trading shots with him at the net, hustling during rallies to outlast the former world No. 1 (Djokovic will overtake him after the U.S. Open, no matter the result of the final). Medvedev’s creativity makes him an alluring opponent for Djokovic, an all-time shotmaker.
Djokovic will be the fan favorite, for a host of reasons. Never as beloved as the now-retired Roger Federer or the almost-retired Rafael Nadal—who missed this U.S. Open as he recovers from injury—American crowds have seemingly warmed to Djokovic. They appreciate his greatness, and know it won’t be around forever. At this point, Djokovic is pretty much the last tie to the “Big 3” era that elevated men’s tennis during the last two decades.
Plus, time may have healed the Covid wounds. Djokovic came under fire for hosting a superspreader event at the height of the pandemic. He caused a row at the 2022 Australian Open, eventually being deported from the country for violating vaccination requirements. He couldn’t play at the U.S. Open last year, since he declined to receive the Covid-19 vaccine.
But the public health emergency is over, officially at least. We’re in a different time.
And it’d be naive to ignore the geopolitical tension surrounding this final. This is the first Grand Slam final that Medvedev has reached since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022. Medvedev cannot compete under the Russian flag at tour events and slams: some players from the Ukraine feel that players from Russia and Belarus, which has supported Vladimir Putin’s actions, should not be able to play at all. Medvedev has called the war “very upsetting,” has advocated for peace and expressed sympathy for Ukrainian players competing on tour while their home country is under attack.
So plenty is at stake on Sunday. Djokovic, for one, is aware of the moment. “At 36, every Grand Slam final could be the last one,” he says. “So I think that I probably value these occasions and opportunities to win another slam more than I have maybe 10 years ago. Because 10 years ago I felt like, hey, I still have quite a few years ahead of me. I don't know how many I have ahead of me now. I don't know how many of the years where I play four slams in the whole season. So of course I am aware of the occasion.”
Sunday will be something else.
Write to Sean Gregory at firstname.lastname@example.org.