To gain a sense of the magnitude of Sunday's US Open final, Novak Djokovic described it as “arguably the most important match of my career".
There's no “arguably” about it. For all the records the Serb has amassed throughout his incomparable career, victory inside Arthur Ashe Stadium against Daniil Medvedev will bring with it not one but two standout pieces of history.
Level with his great rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the top of the all-time Grand Slam winners' list, Djokovic can strike out on his own with his 21st major trophy.
Given his astounding conversion rate at the Grand Slams over the last decade — Djokovic has won 19 of the past 42 majors — it has long felt inevitable he would surpass the pair. Having pulled level in his last outing at Wimbledon, he has that chance at the very first attempt.
Which leads to the other monumental milestone in Djokovic's grasp. A 45 per cent conversion rate at the Grand Slams over 10 years, that has improved to 100 per cent in 2021. The world No 1 is already in possession of the Australian Open, Roland Garros, and Wimbledon titles — a win at Flushing Meadows would make him just the second male player in the Open era, after Rod Laver in 1969, to win all four majors in the same season.
No wonder, then, that Djokovic is determined not to let the opportunity slip.
“I know we want to talk about the history and what’s on the line. I’m aware of it but I'm just trying to lock in to what works for me. I have my routines, I have my people. I isolate myself and surround myself to gather the necessary energy for the next battle,” he said.
“There's only one match left, all in, let's do it. I'm going to put my heart and my soul and my body and my head into that one. I am going to treat the next match like it is the last match in my career.”
Djokovic booked his place in the final with a five-set win over German fourth seed Alexander Zverev, earning a measure of revenge against the player who ended his bid for the golden Grand Slam in the Tokyo Olympics semi-finals.
It was the fourth straight match in which Djokovic had lost the first set and only once has the top seed won in straight sets at this year's US Open. But as Zverev said after the match, Djokovic is “mentally, the best player to ever play the game” and that fighting spirit has been vital in guiding the Serb past the setbacks and into the final.
“I’m glad that my opponents think of me that way,” Djokovic, 34, said. “I want them to feel that they are under extreme pressure when they play me on the big stage.”
While Djokovic has been forced to dig at times, his final opponent has enjoyed a much smoother passage to the title match and should represent the Serb's toughest challenge of the tournament.
Medvedev, the world No 2, has dropped just one set in New York and was able to dispatch his semi-final opponent, Canada's Felix Auger-Aliassime, in just over two hours - around 90 minutes less than it took Djokovic to beat Zverev.
Medvedev has an interesting history at Flushing Meadows having adopted, and embraced, the villain's role on his way to the final in 2019. The Russian playfully taunted the crowds throughout the rounds but saw a shift in support when he fought back from two sets down and pushed Rafael Nadal to the edge in the final.
The 25-year-old returns to the US Open final a better and more experienced player. It will be his third major final after being on the receiving end of a dominant Djokovic display at the Australian Open in February. The Russian, though, is determined to learn from those past experiences and is confident he can spoil the party.
“From my side, I will be in the history books a little bit by being the player to prevent Novak from achieving this [Grand Slam] but I don’t really care about it,” he said. “It’s something that affects him more and for sure he's going to feel the pressure a little. But that could make him even better in the tough moments.
“This is tennis. You have two players, only one of them is going to win, so let’s see what happens.”