The seeds might have been planted in ’93, when a Nike-bedecked Pete Sampras flashed across his TV screen, serving-and-volleying his way to the first of seven titles on the faraway lawns of the All-England Club.

But if you’re tracing the source of the hunger, that all-consuming ambition that has long set Novak Djokovic apart from his nearest rivals and, above all else, served as his greatest asset on the tennis court, you would have to look to the spring of 1999, when NATO first scrambled fighter jets over the skies of his native Belgrade.

Djokovic was an 11-year-old tennis dreamer, a gifted talent who, according to his childhood coach, Jelena Gencic, had Selesian potential. None of that mattered the night his family—younger brothers Marko and Djordje, and parents Srdjan and Dijana—awoke to the discord of shattering windows and air-raid sirens. They fled their building, running through the dark streets toward safety. Nole, as he had been nicknamed, tripped and fell to the ground. In the chaos of it all, he remembers looking up to the sky to see a bomber flying overhead.

When your childhood is shaped by such cataclysmic imprints—bomb-shelter nights, months of fear and uncertainty—your lens on the world narrows its depth-of-field. When all references to your homeland are preceded by “war-torn,” you hunger for a way out. Maybe that’s why, from a small nation of 7.5 million, three tennis players from the same generation (some of whom, out of necessity, trained in a converted indoor swimming pool) would rise to No. 1: Djokovic and WTA counterparts Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic.

Djokovic’s insertion into the Big Three didn’t happen overnight. By the time he broke through at the majors at the 2008 Australian Open, Roger Federer already owned a dozen major titles; clay king Rafael Nadal had already notched his first three at Roland Garros.

Djokovic often battled his own body. In 2005, up a set against Guillermo Coria in the second round at Roland Garros, he retired in the third with breathing issues. Facing Nadal in the Wimbledon semifinals in 2007, he called it quits in the third set due to an elbow injury. Asked about his quarterfinal opponent’s ailing ankle at the US Open in 2008, Andy Roddick famously replied: “Isn’t it both of them? And a back and a hip? And a cramp. Bird flu. Anthrax. SARS. Common cough and cold.” Again facing Roddick in the quarterfinals, this time at the 2009 Australian Open, Djokovic melted in the Melbourne heat, retiring in the fourth set with dizziness.

But in 2011, a gluten-free Djokovic all but reinvented himself, reeling off one of the most dominant seasons in tennis history. He went 70-6 that year, winning 10 titles, including three of the four majors. He somehow managed to top that in 2015, posting an 82-6 record with 11 titles, again but a Coupe des Mousquetaires away from the calendar-year Grand Slam. Between 2015 and 2016, he would hold all four major titles at once, the so-called Nole Slam.

As he pulled closer to Federer and Nadal, the trio engaged in a real-time record-book brawl, he kept a tight-knit group around him, longtime coach Marián Vajda and his wife, Jelena, at its center. He added a nutritionist to the team, and fine-tuned his fitness, turning what was once a weakness into a serious strength. He was never afraid to try something new, be it meditation or visualization techniques, even once suggesting that humans could change the chemical makeup of water with the power of their mind. (Not everyone was on board.)

All along, Djokovic set new standards. He closed 2020 as the year-end No. 1, his record sixth year atop the charts, matching his boyhood idol Sampras. In March, he surpassed Federer for most weeks at No. 1 (a count that’s now up to 338). And this summer at Wimbledon, he pulled even in the men’s singles Slam tally, the Big Three suddenly deadlocked at 20-20-20, the GOAT debate reaching a fever pitch.

On Sunday afternoon in Flushing Meadows, Djokovic took the court no longer that 11-year-old Sampras wannabe running through the Belgrade streets in fear, though just as hungry. Since June, when he stormed back from two sets down against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the Roland Garros final, becoming the only player to have won all four majors and every ATP Masters 1000 event at least twice, he had toted the weight of history on his shoulders: The realization that he had a bona fide shot at becoming the first man in more than half a century to win the Grand Slam.

If the burden was too great, he hadn’t let it show. Not yet anyway. When Roger Maris chased Babe Ruth’s single-season home run mark back in ‘61, his hair fell out in clumps, circling the shower drains in the old Yankee Stadium clubhouse, the stress of the pursuit taking its toll. Djokovic only hinted that he understood what Serena Williams had gone through in 2015, when, closing in on the same conquest, she saw her dream extinguished by an unseeded and unheralded Roberta Vinci in the US Open semis, the most jarring upset in the annals of the tournament.

“I can relate to what she was going through. I understand it now,” he said earlier this week en route to the final. “Once you’re in that situation, you can really comprehend what a player goes through. I understand why she wanted to avoid all the questions about it, because at the end of the day, you have to go out on the court and deliver. You’re expected to always win.”

Djokovic had won 27 straight Grand Slam matches coming into the No. 1-vs.-No. 2 final against Daniil Medvedev, what would be the single most important of the 1,176 matches in his career, one so important that he said he would treat it like his very last. He owned a 5-3 head-to-head edge, including a straight-set 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 dismissal in the title match at the Australian Open in February.

He had the crowd from the start, too, which isn’t always the case, despite all he’s accomplished both on and off the court. That has somehow always come easier for Federer, for Nadal. Said Djokovic after his opening-round win over Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune, a baby-faced 18-year-old qualifier from Denmark, “You always wish to have the crowd behind you, but it’s not always possible.”

Here, at last, was the full-fledged endorsement he had long craved, had long deserved. There were chants of NOLE, NOLE, NOLE! One banner featuring Djokovic’s visage read: LIKE IT OR NOT, GREATEST OF ALL TIME.

“He’s been dreaming of that response his entire career,” observed broadcaster Jimmy Arias.

But signs that the pressure might finally be getting to him soon surfaced. Already down a set and having squandered an opportunity to break Medvedev early in the second, Djokovic pulverized his racquet, receiving an abuse warning from the chair umpire.

The 34-year-old just couldn’t find a way to solve Medvedev, who sprinted through his service games and kept his usually rock-solid opponent off balance throughout the two-hour, 15-minute match. Djokovic was wiping tears away as Medvedev stepped up to serve it out at 5-4 in the final set, that hunger, along with some crushing disappointment, on display for all to see.

When it was over, Medvedev’s display of hard-court mastery resulting in a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 win, the Muscovite would celebrate the biggest victory of his career, his first major title in three attempts. Djokovic, meanwhile, was left to ponder all that had slipped away, having suffered what will surely stand as the most bitter defeat of his career, 27-for-28 at the Grand Slams in 2021, still level with Federer and Nadal when it comes to the very biggest number among the men in the sport.

“Tonight, even though I didn’t win the match, my heart is filled with joy and I’m the happiest man alive because you guys made me feel very special,” Djokovic told his supporters. “You guys touched my soul. I’ve never felt like this in New York. Honestly, I’ve never felt like this. I love you guys.”

Rod Laver, now 83, the last man to sweep all four majors in a single season, the year man first walked on the moon, sat courtside in the front row of the President’s Box, unsure as to how to react, his achievement still unmatched in the Open Era.

Source: Richard Osborn