One game away from being denied the clean sweep of Grand Slams in a calendar year, the crowd stood to its feet to cheer the world No1, who has more often been painted as a pantomime villain on the biggest stage.
The moment briefly reduced him to tears in a bizarre end to the US Open final and a quest for a 28th consecutive Grand Slam singles win, coming one short of emulating Rod Laver’s achievement in 1969 and being denied the outright men’s record of a 21st Grand Slam title.
“Part of me is very sad,” said Djokovic after a somewhat subdued performance as Daniil Medvedev won his first Grand Slam 6-4 6-4 6-4. “It’s a tough one to swallow, this loss, considering everything that was on the line.
“But on the other hand, I felt something I never felt in my life here in New York. The crowd made me feel very special. They pleasantly surprised me.
“I did not expect anything but the amount of support and energy and love I got from the crowd is something that I’ll remember forever. The energy was so strong – it’s as strong as winning 21 Grand Slams. That’s how I felt… honestly.”
And yet the expectation has ramped up with each round. After falling just short, he said he had empathy with Serena Williams in her own quest for tennis history and a record 24th Grand Slam singles title.
In the end, Djokovic admitted it was a sense of relief that the tournament had finally ended. He said: “I was glad it was over because the build-up for this tournament and everything that mentally, emotionally I had to deal with throughout the tournament in the last couple of weeks was just a lot to handle.
“I’m just glad the run is over. At the same time, I felt sadness and disappointment. I didn’t make it in the final step. But when you draw a line, you have to be very satisfied with the year – three wins, three slams and a final.”
In victory, Medvedev labelled Djokovic the greatest of all time after another stunning season for the 34-year-old Serbian, who looked subdued and out of sorts for much of a one-sided final.
For his 25-year-old opponent, it was a first Grand Slam victory in his third final, and marked only the second occasion in history that a player born in the 1990s had won one of tennis’ majors. In contrast, the previous, Dominic Thiem, had done it without any of the big three to overcome.
The Russian was almost apologetic for ending Djokovic’s history making. But he added: “For the confidence and for my future career, knowing that I beat somebody who was 27-0 in a year in Grand Slams…definitely makes it sweeter.”