Sitting on a French mountaintop provided the inspiration for Novak Djokovic to climb back to the tennis summit.
The 31-year-old defeated Juan Martin del Potro 6-3 7-6 (7/4) 6-3 in the US Open final to claim a third success at Flushing Meadows and make it back-to-back slam titles.
Prior to his Wimbledon crown, Djokovic had gone two years without a grand slam title, struggling with motivation, confidence and an elbow problem that ruled him out of this tournament 12 months ago.
He finally had surgery in February and, reunited with mentor Marian Vajda, looked to be regaining top form when he suffered a shock French Open quarter-final loss to Marco Cecchinato.
Djokovic said: “I felt like I was so close to the desired level, and then I just completely underplayed that match. I had to disconnect a little bit. I went hiking with my wife for five days in the French mountains. We just isolated ourselves and took things from a different perspective.”
It was climbing Mont Saint Victoire in Provence, the inspiration for many of Paul Cezanne’s paintings, that helped Djokovic see the light.
“We sat down and we just looked at the world from that perspective, breathed in the new inspiration, new motivation,” he said. “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.
“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 guess we’ll be hiking some more very soon.”
Djokovic is now level on 14 titles with Pete Sampras and, in men’s terms, behind only Rafael Nadal on 17 and Roger Federer’s 20. He will climb above Del Potro to third in the rankings and could yet usurp Nadal by the end of the season.
Equalling Sampras was particularly special for Djokovic, who said: “Pete Sampras is one of the biggest legends ever to play the game. He was my childhood idol.
“The first thing I saw related to tennis on the TV was his first or second Wimbledon championship. That inspired me to start playing tennis.
“There is a lot of significance of me being now shoulder-to-shoulder in terms of grand slam wins with him. It’s truly incredible when you think about it. I grew up playing and thinking that one day I’ll be able to do what he does. To actually be here, it’s a dream come true.”
Djokovic’s most difficult opponent this tournament has been the heat and humidity, so Sunday’s cool and wet conditions, resulting in the roof being shut on Arthur Ashe Stadium, were perfectly to his liking.
Del Potro was the sentimental favourite as he attempted to win a second slam title nine years after his first, having suffered two serious wrist injuries, the second of which he feared would end his career.
He was clearly the crowd favourite and his loyal band of childhood friends from his home town of Tandil led the 20,000-plus fans in repeated choruses of ‘Ole, ole, ole, ole, Delpo, Delpo’.
But Del Potro needed more than just goodwill to beat Djokovic at his best, he needed his mighty forehand to be flawless and the rest of his game to back it up.
This was not that day, although even at his absolute best he would have struggled to hold off Djokovic on this form.
The crux of the match came midway through the second set. From 1-3, Del Potro won three games in a row and had Djokovic rattled. The Serbian had to endure a dramatic 20-minute service game in which his opponent had three more break points but could not take them.
Djokovic then won the tie-break from 1-3 down to clinch a 95-minute set and, although Del Potro also threatened a comeback in the third, there was no doubt who was the stronger player.
The Argentinian could not hold back the tears after coming so close to achieving what he has been working for all these years, but he still managed to be happy for his friend.
He said: “I was crying until now. I’m very sad for being a loser today. But Novak deserved to take the trophy. He played a great match, very smart game. I had my opportunities during second and third set. But I was playing almost at the limit all the time. He’s a great champion. So I’m glad for him.”
The much-loved Argentinian could take consolation, though, from the immense support he received.
“You can lose or win a trophy, but the love from the crowd, it could be even bigger than the tournament,” he said. “It will be in my heart for the rest of my life.”