NEW YORK — The U.S. Open final suddenly appeared to be slipping away from Novak Djokovic. He dropped three consecutive games. He was angered by a crowd roaring for his popular opponent, Juan Martin del Potro. He was, in short, out of sorts.
And then came Sunday's pivotal game, a 20-minute, 22-point epic. Three times, del Potro was a point from breaking and earning the right to serve to make it a set apiece. Three times, Djokovic steeled himself. Eventually, he seized that game — and del Potro's best chance to make a match of it.
A year after missing the U.S. Open because of an injured right elbow that would require surgery, Djokovic showed that he is unquestionably back at his best and back at the top of tennis. His returns and defense-to-offense skills as impeccable as ever, Djokovic collected his 14th Grand Slam title and second in a row by getting through every crucial moment for a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3 victory over 2009 champion del Potro at Flushing Meadows.
Djokovic was better than del Potro on their many lengthy exchanges, using his trademark body-twisting, limb-splaying court coverage to get to nearly every ball, sneakers squeaking around the blue court in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the roof was closed because of rain.
This was Djokovic's third championship in New York, along with those in 2011 and 2015. Add in the trophies he has earned at six Australian Opens, one French Open and four Wimbledons, most recently in July, and the 31-year-old Serb pulled even with Pete Sampras for the third-most majors among men, trailing only Roger Federer's 20 and Rafael Nadal's 17.
Federer lost in the fourth round in New York, while Nadal retired from his semifinal against del Potro because of a bad right knee. That put the 29-year-old Argentine back in a Grand Slam final for the first time since his breakthrough nine years ago, a comeback for a guy who had four wrist operations in the interim.
Del Potro spoke this week about the low point, in 2015, when he considered quitting the sport. But supported by a dozen or so friends from back home, whose "Ole!" choruses rang around the arena, he climbed up the rankings to a career-high No. 3 by thundering his 100 mph forehands and 135 mph serves.
Those produce free points against so many foes. Not against Djokovic, who always seemed to have all the answers.
Never was that more apparent than the game that stood out on this evening: with Djokovic serving while down 4-3 in the second set. They went back and forth, through eight deuces and all those break opportunities for del Potro, until he slapped one forehand into the net, and another sailed wide.
WTA calls for equal treatment of players, on-court coaching
The WTA is calling for equal treatment of all tennis players and coaching to be allowed across the sport in the aftermath of the U.S. Open final.
Serena Williams was given three code violations by chair umpire Carlos Ramos in her 6-2, 6-4 loss to Naomi Osaka on Saturday, and critics inside and outside of tennis argued that she was not treated the same as some male players.
The women's pro tour agreed.
"The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men vs. women and is committed to working with the sport to ensure that all players are treated the same. We do not believe that this was done last night," CEO Steve Simon said in a statement.
The first violation given to Williams was for coaching, which isn't allowed during any men's matches but is permitted on the women's tour except in Grand Slam tournaments.
Though Williams said she follows the rules and never receives it during a match, Patrick Mouratoglou acknowledged that he does it and says it's well known throughout the sport that all coaches do.