Roger & Rafa have made me the player that I am: Djokovic
'Life showed me that it takes time for things to fall into place'
- Published 11.09.18
New York: Novak Djokovic was thrilled to match Pete Sampras with a 14th Grand Slam title at the US Open on Sunday, but he said it's Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal who have made him the player he is.
"Pete Sampras is one of the biggest legends ever to play the game," Djokovic said after earning a third US Open crown with a 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3 victory over Juan Martin del Potro.
"He was my childhood idol. He was someone I was looking up to. The first actual 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."
The victory puts Djokovic three Grand Slam wins away from Nadal's 17 and six behind Federer's record 20. It will also see him rise to No. 3 in the world behind Nadal and Federer - the rankings again reflecting the "Big Three" status they have shared for so long.
Djokovic had tumbled down the rankings, slowed last year by an elbow injury and a loss of confidence that accompanied a 54-week title drought.
Since bursting out of the slump with an unexpected Wimbledon title he has gone from strength to strength, adding a long-awaited Cincinnati Masters title to his resume before adding the US Open title to those he won in 2011 and 2015. Djokovic faced neither of his greatest rivals en route to the title in Flushing Meadows.
Seeded to face Federer in the quarter finals, he found himself instead across the net from John Millman after the unheralded Australian stunned the Swiss great. Nadal hobbled out of a semi-final match against Del Potro after two sets. Djokovic would have relished taking on either -- or both, although he admits that early in his career that wasn't always the case.
"Maybe 10 years ago I would say I'm not so happy to be part of this era with Nadal and Federer," he said. "Today I really am. I feel like these guys, rivalries with these guys, matches with Federer and Nadal, have made me the player I am, have shaped me into the player I am today. I owe it to them."
When Djokovic's year got off to a less-than-ideal start, the Serbian set off on a five-day hike in the French Alps that proved transformative. Since his June trek with his wife up Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain that famously also served as an inspiration for Paul Cezanne, the 31-year-old has added a pair of Grand Slam titles to his resume.
"I remember one moment particularly when we climbed that mountain. It was pretty high. We reached the top after three hours," Djokovic recalled.
"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 in a way. 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."
After missing the second half of the 2017 season because of an elbow problem, Djokovic played the Australian Open before having surgery on the joint only for the disappointing results to continue until his quarter-final exit at Roland Garros.
Something in the Alpine air clearly agreed with him.
"I had to kind of disconnect a little bit," said Djokovic."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 guess we'll be hiking some more very soon," he added with a smile. "I learned a lot about myself, learned to be patient, which was never really a stronger side of me," Djokovic said. "But at the same time, life showed me that it takes time for good things, it takes time to really build them, for things to fall into place, so you can centre yourself, balance yourself and thrive.
Although he was riding high coming into the Open, Djokovic was among the many struggling with crushing heat and humidity in the first week. He needed four sets to get past 41st-ranked Hungarian Marton Fucsovics in the first round and another to get past 61st-ranked American Tennys Sandgren in the second.
He picked up the pace with straight-sets victories over France's Richard Gasquet, Portugal's Joao Sousa, Millman and 2014 finalist Kei Nishikori to arrive at a title tilt with good friend Del Potro. After seizing an early break in the second set, Djokovic suddenly found himself on the run, dropping three straight games before he dug in to salvage a service hold in a 20-minute marathon game that went to deuce eight times.