Disqualification, vaccination, injury and history – Why Novak Djokovic has not won the US Open in five years
Remarkably, the 23-time Grand Slam champion has not won at Flushing Meadows since 2018
He has been the supremely dominant force in men’s tennis throughout this period and has sat atop the ATP rankings for the majority of this time.
It is therefore something of an oddity that the men’s Grand Slam record holder has failed to capture the US Open title for half a decade.
Djokovic has a strange relationship with the final major of the season. It is not simply that he struggles in New York – in fact, quite the contrary.
The Serb’s record at Flushing Meadows is, as you’d expect, extraordinary.
No one currently playing has won more than Novak Djokovic. 😳 pic.twitter.com/HT80VSGYVw— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 21, 2023
Between 2007 and 2016 – a span of ten US Open tournaments – Djokovic made at least the semi-finals on every one of those ten occasions, winning the title twice and finishing runner-up five times.
After missing the tournament in 2017 due to an elbow injury for which he underwent surgery in February 2018, the Serb returned the next year to win the title for a third time in 2018, triumphing over Juan Martin Del Potro in a one-sided final.
Since then, however, the trophy has eluded him.
In each of the past four tournaments since his last victory, there have been mitigating factors that had eliminated Djokovic from contention.
2019 – Injury forces Novak out
At the time, Djokovic was a 16-time Grand Slam champion, defending champion at Flushing Meadows and the hot favourite to defend his trophy from the year before, fresh off winning Wimbledon that summer.
But during a thoroughly entertaining fourth round encounter with his 2016 conqueror Stan Wawrinka, the Serb was forced to retire at two sets and a break down due to a left shoulder injury.
Hitting ⏪ on the Wawrinka-Djokovic rivalry at the US Open! pic.twitter.com/Wif4zKclZZ— US Open Tennis (@usopen) July 6, 2023
The Swiss player had been breathtaking in that match, and it may be the case that Djokovic would have lost regardless.
Nevertheless, and sadly for Wawrinka, the history books remember that it was injury that defeated Novak at the US Open in 2019, ending his title defence.
2020 – Disqualification
In a career that has been littered with controversy, the 2020 US Open stands out as one of Djokovic’s most contentious moments on a tennis courts.
It was a bizarre time in tennis and sports generally. After a year in which the calendar had been decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the crowd-less US Open was the first Grand Slam tournament to be played after the pandemic had taken hold.
In a strange and cavernous atmosphere inside an empty Arthur Ashe stadium it was again the fourth round that proved an unexpected stumbling block for the Serb.
Djokovic was playing Carreno Busta in that last 16 match, one he was heavy favourite to win, when he unintentionally struck a line judge in the throat when hitting a ball away in frustration.
As per the rules, Djokovic was disqualified and was forced to forfeit the match to his Spanish opponent.
2021 – back in the final, but the weight of history proving too much
The following year, Novak returned to New York at the very top of his powers.
He had won all three Grand Slam tournaments that year, having spectacularly dethroned Rafael Nadal in Paris in June, and was standing at the precipice of history with a chance to clinch a first ever men’s calendar Grand Slam.
For six matches, it seemed the march to history was inexorable.
Having overcome a superb Alexander Zverev in five thrilling sets in the last four, Djokovic faced Daniil Medvedev in the final – the Russian arguably the finest player on tour at the time other than the Serb.
But it wasn’t to be for Novak.
The titanic mental and physical effort required to land a calendar Grand Slam is something that proved too heavy even for Serena Williams in 2015, as the American admitted after her last four loss to Roberta Vinci.
For Djokovic in 2021, there was even more on the line.
Tied with Federer and Nadal on 20 Grand Slam titles apiece at the time, victory over Medvedev on September 12th 2021 would have moved him one clear of his rivals for the first time in his career, and clinched the calendar Grand Slam in a double feat that would have cemented the Serb as the greatest to have played the sport.
Ultimately, it proved too much for even Novak Djokovic as the weight of the occasion and the toll of a long and arduous season denied him his best form.
In front of an adoring New York crowd that day – a relationship that has often been more hate than love over the years – Djokovic could not hide his emotion at, for once, being the darling of New York City.
Yet, it was another title chance missed.
2022 – Covid-19 entry requirements rule Djokovic out
In what is now well-documented, 2022 Djokovic missed the US Open because of his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
The US government still mandated vaccination as a condition of entry into the country at that point, meaning the Serb missed every tournament played on American soil that year.
In his absence, Carlos Alcaraz stepped up to the plate, winning his maiden Grand Slam title in thrilling style to announce the dawn of a new era in men’s tennis.
What will 2023 hold in store for the 23-time Grand Slam champion?
As we rapidly approach the start of the final major of the year, Djokovic is once again one of the favourites to land a fourth US Open title.
However, he has to share that mantle with world No 1 and defending champion Carlos Alcaraz, who defeated the Serb at Wimbledon this year to snap Novak’s astonishing record at SW19.
Perhaps that Wimbledon loss has done Djokovic a service for a tilt at the US Open crown, however.
Should injury and disqualification not intervene, Djokovic will also be without the weight a calendar Grand Slam opportunity on his shoulders.
Alcaraz and Djokovic are the standout favourites, and there is currently nothing to separate them.
Djokovic has the recent edge though, having come out on top in what was another spectacular tussle in the Cincinnati Open final last week.
After the sheer pulsating thrill that their four encounters have yielded so far, everyone in the tennis world and beyond wants to see them fight for another title in New York.
With each on separate sides of the draw, it would have to be in the final.
If Djokovic is to break his five-year hoodoo in Flushing Meadows this year, it would feel fitting that he has to overcome Carlos Alcaraz to achieve the feat.