NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic raised his hands in the air before falling to his knees and crouching on the ground, as nearly 24,000 people stood and roared in ovation. While his face wasn’t visible, his whole body shook as he sobbed.
On Sunday, Djokovic defeated Daniil Medvedev 6-3, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in the US Open final, further cementing his name among, or perhaps above, the sport’s greatest. The triumph marks his 24th major singles title, the most by any player of the Open era, and ties Margaret Court’s long-standing record for the most in tennis history.
“To make history [in] this sport is just something truly remarkable and special, obviously, in every possible way, in every possible meaning of the word,” Djokovic said, while wearing a custom “24” jacket, on court after the win. “I never imagined that I would be here standing with you talking about 24 Slams. I never thought that that would be the reality. But [in] the last couple of years I felt I had a chance, I have a shot at the history, and why not grab it if it’s presented?”
It’s an achievement that has been much discussed. Serena Williams famously chased it for several years before ultimately retiring with 23 major titles, while Rafael Nadal hit 22 last year but has been hampered by injuries.
“Twenty-four would of course mean a lot, as 23 has meant a lot,” Djokovic said in an interview with ESPN before play got underway. “So any additional one would be a huge bonus. I’m really happy with 23, I must say. I have learned in my life to be happy with what I have and be thankful for that.
“But of course, I always want one more.”
For the 36-year-old Djokovic, reaching 24 might be something of a formality — most would argue he has already surpassed what Court achieved in her career because the eras are simply not comparable. This record is only the latest milestone in Djokovic’s quest to secure his status as the greatest of all time.
Djokovic won his 20th major at Wimbledon two years ago, putting himself in a tie with Nadal and Roger Federer for the most major titles by a male player. Nadal then took over sole possession of the lead by winning his 21st and 22nd during the Australian Open and French Open in 2022. Djokovic caught him at the Australian Open this year and then catapulted into the lead with 23 when he won the French Open in June. The same victory evened him with Williams for the most by any player in the Open era.
The accomplishment was heralded by many across the sport, including peers like Andy Murray, who has played against him in seven Grand Slam finals.
“It’s incredible what he’s achieved,” Murray said. “To have passed Rafa and Roger in the Grand Slam title chase, whatever you want to call it, it’s amazing. I think if you look back [at the numbers from the past] eight to 10 years … sort of how far away he was from them, what he’s gone on to achieve in sort of the latter stages of his career, it’s been incredible. Also doesn’t look like he’s slowing down.”
But while the monumental victory might have changed how he was perceived by some, it didn’t change much for Djokovic.
“I don’t feel more relaxed, to be honest,” Djokovic said about reaching No. 23, before Wimbledon began in July. “I still feel hungry for success, for more Grand Slams, more achievements in tennis. … I want to try to use every Grand Slam opportunity I have at this stage where I’m feeling good in my body, feeling motivated and playing very good tennis, to try to get more.”
Court has held the record for the most Grand Slam singles titles since 1973, when she won her last US Open trophy. For many years, no one came anywhere near to challenging it. Steffi Graf was the first to come close, but left the game in 1999 with 22.
Williams won her 23rd singles title at the 2017 Australian Open and later revealed she was pregnant during the tournament. She left the tour for maternity leave until March 2018. Upon her return and for the next four years, she was unsuccessful in her attempts at winning a 24th major. She reached four Grand Slam finals during that span but came up short each time, then retired following the 2022 US Open.
“There are people who say I’m not the GOAT because I didn’t pass Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles, which she achieved before the ‘Open Era’ that began in 1968,” Williams wrote in Vogue when she announced her impending departure from the sport. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record. Obviously I do.”
Court, 81, is a divisive figure in the sport. The founder and senior pastor of her Pentecostal ministry, Court is staunchly opposed to same-sex marriage and has previously expressed other controversial opinions, including support of the former system of apartheid in South Africa.
Court believes there has been an erasure of her name and achievements in the sport, and if another player were to break her record, it would further remove her from conversations about the game’s all-time greats. “A lot of the press and television today, particularly in tennis, don’t want to mention my name,” Court said in an interview last year with Britain’s Daily Telegraph.
But even if her belief that she’s a persona non grata in the sport is correct, to many, comparing what Djokovic or Williams has achieved with Court’s record before the Open era is disingenuous.
“To me, records can only be apples to apples if your entire career took place in the Open era,” said Pam Shriver, a 21-time major doubles champion, ESPN analyst and coach. “Reaching No. 24 is a great record to match, but I have to discount any comparisons because of the way Margaret Court was able to pad her record with 11 Australian Open titles.”
Before the start of the Open era in 1968, only amateurs were allowed to participate in Grand Slam events, thus preventing some of the best players in the world from competing. And even after that rule change, the prohibitive cost and challenges in getting halfway around the world prevented many top players from competing at the Australian Open, so the field was made up mostly of Australians.
Court won her 11 titles in Melbourne from 1960 to 1973, and not once during that time was there a complete draw of 64 players. There were just 27 players in the 1964 draw, and in multiple years she received a first-round bye. She won the 1966 title thanks to a walkover in the final before the match started. Billie Jean King, her biggest rival, played the event only three times while Court was competing.
“For Djokovic, [Court’s record] is just another thing that’s out there,” said Patrick McEnroe, a former top-30 player and ESPN analyst. “It’s great but it’s just another record. For Serena, it meant more because it was another woman, but to me, Serena is a far better player than Margaret Court even without the record. [Court] was in a draw basically just full of Australians for almost half of her titles so it’s a totally different thing.
“I think Djokovic likes [matching this record] but I don’t think it’s what is driving him. He cared way more about topping [Rafael] Nadal and Federer. I think he just wants to keep winning titles and be unquestionably the greatest ever.”
Djokovic is a self-professed student of the game and someone who understands and appreciates the sport’s history. He has never shied away from wanting to be recognized among the sport’s all-time greats for his achievements on and off the court.
Coming from Serbia, a country with limited resources and lacking a lengthy tennis tradition, it’s more than just individual accolades for Djokovic. He wants to be the greatest on the court — and he also wants to use that power to improve the sport.
“I know what it feels like to come from nowhere and nothing,” Djokovic told ESPN. “I come from a war-torn country. It’s been difficult to get [to this point], but [that struggle] is [engrained] in my mentality and I won’t forget it…
“I want to leave a legacy on and off the court. I would love my peers, my colleagues, to remember me as someone who had a lot of success in tennis, but didn’t only think about himself, but also thought of other players and making sure that while he’s at the top of the game, that he’s using his influence, he’s using his status and his profile and his contact to create a better ecosystem for players and generally just for the sport.”
After winning the year’s first two majors, Djokovic entered Wimbledon as the four-time defending champion, and seemed well-positioned to complete a calendar Grand Slam this year. Only five players in history have successfully done it, and just three — Rod Laver, Graf and Court — did so in the Open era. Djokovic was one match away in 2021 before losing to Medvedev in the US Open final, and it remains one of the few things Djokovic hasn’t accomplished during his career.
But the Wimbledon title, and his latest bid for the calendar Grand Slam, were not to be. He was stunned by Carlos Alcaraz in the final with the trophy, and so much more, on the line. After the loss, he vowed to come back stronger.
He hasn’t lost a match since.
Djokovic arrived in New York after defeating Alcaraz in a three-set thriller for the Cincinnati title. Needing almost four hours and saving match point, he later called it “one of the most exciting matches” he had ever played.
No one knew what to expect from Djokovic at the US Open. While he was certainly a favorite to win, he hasn’t had the same success in New York in recent years as he has had at the other Slams. He won the last of his three US Open titles in 2018. He had back-to-back fourth-round exits in 2019 and 2020 (when he was defaulted for inadvertently hitting a line judge with a ball), then lost in the 2021 final, and was unable to play in 2022 due to his unvaccinated status. But because of his absence last year and with no points to defend, he will regain his world No. 1 ranking on Monday by simply reaching the second round.
But Djokovic was dominant during his stay in New York. With the exception of a baffling third-round match against fellow Serbian Laslo Djere, in which he needed to come back after losing the first two sets, Djokovic’s run to the final was rarely in doubt. During his semifinal match on Friday, Djokovic ended the Cinderella run of 20-year-old American Ben Shelton 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (4) with relative ease. It was their first meeting and Shelton said he could feel the difference between Djokovic and other players.
“Novak has a little more fire to him than other guys that I have played,” Shelton said. “You can just see the competitive spirit, you know, kind of just oozing out of him. He’s like that for pretty much the whole match, he’s pretty locked in.”
Now, with his 24th major title, Djokovic has further separated himself from the rest of the field, including Nadal and Federer. Holding a share of the all-time record leaves little argument, no matter the metric, about his status as the best.
On Friday, after advancing to the final, Djokovic expressed gratitude for getting the chance to play for another major title, acknowledging each opportunity could be his last due to his age. But even if that were the case, it wouldn’t change much about his place in history, according to former world No. 4 and ESPN analyst James Blake.
“There will always be watercooler debates, but it’s going to be tough, and much more difficult, for anyone to argue in any other direction outside of Novak being the greatest of all time with him at 24,” Blake said. “To me, it’s similar to when Tom Brady won his fourth Super Bowl and there was still that debate about him and Joe Montana [as the greatest ever], and then Brady goes and win his fifth, and then his sixth, and, well, the debate is over, and then it just became him adding to his legend and his legacy. That’s sort of the situation we’re in with Novak right now.”