NEW YORK — After considering skipping the U.S. Open because of injury concerns, Novak Djokovic made it all the way to the final for the sixth time in the past seven years.
He came up short of the title, though, settling for his fifth runner-up showing at Flushing Meadows because, by his own admission, he got tight at key points — and not because of the physical distress he dealt with down the stretch, including bleeding toes that were treated by a trainer.
Most glaring of all during a 6-7 (1), 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 loss to Stan Wawrinka on Sunday was this statistic: Djokovic, one of the greatest returners of his, or any, generation, converted only 3 of 17 break chances.
“I lost my nerves in the important moments. He kept his cool. I think that’s what decided the match,” said Djokovic, the No. 1 seed and defending champion. “I guess sometimes it happens, even though you have the experience and know what to do. Just the heat of the moment and importance of the match, I guess, was too strong for me at certain periods of the match. Just if you lose your cool, the match can go away.”
It’s a rather startling admission from someone who owns 12 major titles and a career Grand Slam, who has spent more than 200 weeks at No. 1 in the ATP rankings, who was the first man to exceed $100 million in career prize money in tennis.
And, especially, someone who earlier this season was considered close to unbeatable. Until losing in the third round at Wimbledon against Sam Querrey, Djokovic had won 30 consecutive Grand Slam matches, becoming only the third man — and first in nearly 50 years — to win four consecutive major titles.
But Djokovic acknowledged that he became too passive at pivotal segments of the match against No. 3 Wawrinka, who collected the third major trophy of his career and first at Flushing Meadows.
“He was more courageous, because he stepped in and played aggressive,” Djokovic said, “where I was kind of more waiting for things to happen.”
Never was that more apparent than when Djokovic was returning serve. Over and over again, he would get an opening to break Wawrinka, and over and over again that opportunity went by the wayside.
Coming into Sunday, Djokovic had won nearly 50 percent of his return games in the tournament. Against Wawrinka, he only managed to win 3 of 22.
“Terrible conversion of the break points,” Djokovic said. “Just terrible from my side.”
He has appeared in 21 Grand Slam finals, second in the history of men’s tennis only to Roger Federer, but now has a record of 12-9 in those all-on-the-line matchups.
That includes a 2-5 mark at the U.S. Open, where Djokovic won the titles in 2011 and 2015, but lost to Federer in 2007, to Rafael Nadal in 2010 and 2013, and to Andy Murray in 2012.
Late Sunday evening, Djokovic was asked to assess his season, which includes a 56-6 record, along with titles at the Australian Open, French Open and five other tournaments. He picked up a sore left wrist shortly before a first-round loss at the Rio Olympics last month, then dealt with problems with both shoulders and his right elbow over the past two weeks, before the foot issues in the final.
“Winning two out of four Grand Slams is a pretty good year, and playing another final — I have no complaints. Obviously I wish that I could win another title, but this is what it is. You have to shake hands and accept the loss from a better player and move on,” Djokovic said.
“It’s not the first time, it’s not the last time I’m going to lose a match. Big match,” he continued. “Hopefully I can learn from it. Hopefully I can get better, because that’s the cycle of life, I guess, for us athletes.”
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