Just when it looked as if the new generation were circling the wagons, readying themselves to make a mark, they had been put in their place by the 31-year-old Serb, assisted and supported by his 29-year-old Argentine rival.
In three hours and 16 minutes of bludgeoning tennis on Sunday night, Djokovic eventually got the better of Juan Martin del Potro, his pal and the crowd’s favourite, to win 6-3, 7-6, 6-3 in the New York final. That win put him level with Pete Sampras’s tally of majors and etched him into another chapter of tennis history.
For a set and a few games, Djokovic was the master; for most of the second set, Del Potro was muscling his way into contention. And then Djokovic refused to be beaten in the third set. That was the Djokovic of old. That was the man we had not seen in a couple of years.
Back in 2016, when Djokovic beat Andy Murray to win the French Open title, he was the master of all he surveyed. By winning in Roland Garros, he held all four grand slam trophies. He was the undisputed world No 1 and no one knew who could stop him.
But he stopped himself – he had achieved everything he had ever dreamt of and now he was spent. Sure, he reached the US Open final that summer, but as he stumbled to a fourth set with Stan Wawrinka, he wondered why he had to do this. Did he really have to play another set? This was a different Djokovic.
As he told a reporter earlier this summer: “I lost my mojo.” The well was dry. The fierce, fearsome, indomitable Djokovic was done.
An elbow injury last year was the saving of him. Six months off, six months at home to spend with his young family and six months to think – that was the start of the Djokovic comeback. When he finally succumbed to elbow surgery earlier this year, he knew he was physically ready to get back to the top. But when he beat Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals of Wimbledon, he knew he was mentally ready to become the champion of old.
He had lost in the quarter-finals of the French Open a little over four weeks before and he was furious. He took time off to go hiking with his wife in the mountains of France. Climbing for three hours to the top of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, he took stock.
“I went hiking with my wife for five days in the French mountains,” he said. “We just isolated ourselves and took things from a different perspective. Ever since then, the tennis is completely different for me. In terms of results, I played finals of Queen’s, won Wimbledon, won Cincinnati, and won US Open.
“I remember one moment particularly when we climbed that mountain. We sat down and we just looked at the world from that perspective, just kind of breathed in the new inspiration, new motivation.
“I thought of tennis, thought of the emotion that tennis provokes in me. It was all positives. I just felt like I had a new breath for this sport. The rest is history in terms of results, in terms of how I felt. I just felt like a whole wave of energy that I was kind of thriving on from that moment onwards.”
And in that moment Djokovic’s life changed. He was ready to win again – and he proved it on Sunday night. Two months; two grand slam titles won. Djokovic was back to his best.
With Andy Murray working his way back from hip surgery, Roger Federer shaking off a heat-affected result in New York, Del Potro proving that he is back to his best and Nadal assuring all that his knee issue is just a problem that he has dealt with many times in the past, the young lads have a huge task ahead of them.
But if they can find a way past those four champions, they will then have to find a way to beat Djokovic. And on Sunday night, he slammed the door tight shut in their faces.