NEW YORK — Shortly after getting past upstart American Ben Shelton on Friday in the U.S. Open semifinals, clinching a spot in a Grand Slam final for the fourth time this year, 36-year-old Novak Djokovic did, in fact, admit that he’s not going to play forever.
“I don’t want to even consider leaving tennis or thinking about an end if I’m still at the top of the game,” he said. “I just don’t see a reason for that. I will probably consider doing that if I get my a– kicked by young guys in Grand Slams in the years to come in the earlier stages. Then I’ll probably say, OK, maybe it’s time to move on.
“But so far, you know, I still feel that I’m in the game.”
No one could argue that final point. Djokovic played nearly flawless tennis in the first two sets of his win over Shelton, and although the third was much tighter, it was still an impressive performance from the man who will resume his place as the world’s No. 1 ranked player after the U.S. Open concludes — regardless of whether he beats Daniil Medvedev in the final on Sunday.
That’s right, it’s Djokovic vs. Medvedev, not Djokovic vs. Carlos Alcaraz, the defending U.S. Open champion and reigning king of Wimbledon. The widely anticipated final matchup of the top two seeds here did not materialize after Alcaraz was overwhelmed later Friday by the crafty and precise Medvedev, 7-6 (3), 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
Instead of the latest chapter of the Djokovic-Alcaraz rivalry that has become the dominant conflict in men’s tennis, Sunday will be a rematch of the 2021 U.S. Open final — the last time Djokovic played here after missing the 2022 tournament because of the U.S. policy at the time barring foreign visitors who weren’t vaccinated against COVID-19. In that match, Medvedev stunned the tennis world by beating Djokovic, stopping him one win short of the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men’s singles since Rod Laver did it long before anyone playing today was even born, and celebrated by doing the dead-fish flop.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 12, 2021
Against Shelton, he of the 149-mph serves, Djokovic figured he’d have to serve well himself if he were to advance. He did. It took well into the third set for Shelton to finally break Djokovic, who ended up getting 68 percent of his first serves in, while winning 84 percent of those points. Shelton converted first serves at a slightly higher rate — 71 percent — but won only 60 percent of those points against the man known as one of the best returners to ever play.
“Probably the best serving I have had so far in the tournament, and it was important considering I was playing a big server today,” Djokovic said. “I knew that I’m gonna get my looks and my opportunities on his serve, but it was probably even more important to really be comfortably holding my service games and trying to get that first-serve percentage high. (I didn’t) give him too many chances to come at my second serve, and attack the second serve.”
He punctuated the win by imitating Shelton’s celebration from Wednesday against Frances Tiafoe, answering and slamming down an imaginary phone.
Novak Djokovic hangs up the phone on Ben. 🥶 pic.twitter.com/AvMD9kPY2N
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 8, 2023
“I just love Ben’s celebration,” Djokovic said, through a grin. “I thought it was very original, and I copied him. I stole his celebration.”
While Djokovic was a bit miffed at losing two games on his serve in the third set, including up 6-5 with a chance to put it away, that doesn’t alter how he feels about his overall game headed into the final. He’s been on a roll since winning the Cincinnati Masters just before the U.S. Open began.
“I have been performing very well. Most of the matches went straight sets except one (against Laslo Djere in the third round) where I had to come back from two sets to love down. Other than that, the performance since (the) Cincinnati first round to now to the finals has been really, really good. So, I’m really pleased with my tennis and the way I feel on the court. Now for the ultimate challenge, and fighting for another Grand Slam title.”
That challenge will come against Medvedev, who was simply too much for Alcaraz on Friday. He said before the match that he might have to play “11 out of 10” to win the match. Afterward, he said he’d done one better — 12 out of 10.
It might take a similar effort on Sunday. Djokovic beat Medvedev four straight times after that U.S. Open loss. But Medvedev struck back in Dubai, a hard-court tournament, earlier this year. Still, the impossibly experienced Djokovic is on the cusp of history, needing one more win to tie Margaret Court for the most major singles titles ever, men or women.
He was on the cusp of history here two years ago, too. Just like then, Medvedev will be across the net.
Ben Shelton’s U.S. Open run is over, but the experience has only just begun
(Photo: Frey / TPN / Getty Images)