Love, that many-splendoured thing, is more than a score in tennis.
Yet, unfair and predictable as it might seem after another fortnight of excellence in New York that reached a pitch in a final worthy of the occasion, the winner of the 2015 US Open, Novak Djokovic, did not get the quotient he deserved for taking his 10th grand slam title, his third straight in finals against Roger Federer.
The reason, as it will remain until the sainted Swiss decides to quit the sport – probably around 2050 – resided on the other side of the net and it is not at all the fault of the brave 34-year-old loser. Federer has only to walk on to a tennis court with a racket in his hand and flick his bandana-ed locks to excite the most fevered emotions the game has ever seen because he plays tennis that is pure and beautiful, without compromise and with the elegance of Fred Astaire.
While Federer is aware of all this – he might have appalling dress sense but he is not blind – he is condemned to feign ignorance of the fact that his opponents, without fail, are regarded as villains for spoiling his evening. They called Mike Hussey Mr Cricket; Federer is Sir Tennis.
On Sunday night he was predictably drowned in the communal embrace of the Church Of Roger, the winner getting the dregs of their concern despite the best efforts of the host broadcaster’s suits to ginger up the acclaim for Djokovic in an on-court summary that resembled a fund drive by a TV evangelist.
It is unlikely to change, even if the 28-year-old Serb hunts down and eclipses Federer’s mark of 17 major titles, which he surely will do if he remains upright for another few years, and the odds are he will win the only major that eludes him, the French, as Rafael Nadal’s influence there ebbs.
In a packed, seething Arthur Ashe Stadium Djokovic, not for the first time, had to endure a crass interruption from a member of the drunk monkey squad as he closed out a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 triumph after three hours and 20 minutes of tennis that produced more thrills than anyone had a right to expect.
They have been doing this together for 42 matches over nine years now, with honours even at 21 wins apiece. Grown-ups, of which there are many but not enough in the tennis community, recognised their combined contribution here.
When Djokovic lost to Stan Wawrinka in the final of the French Open this year – a defeat that ultimately would block the world No 1 in his charge for a calendar slam – he cried in defeat, and Parisians, sophisticated in these matters, rose to acclaim him. They recognised his hidden hurt.
Here, both combatants contributed to a night of splendid entertainment, delayed three hours by the fickle weather that blights this coastline every September. It was an error-speckled, tense occasion, with enough highlights to make it memorable.
Djokovic – like Serena Williams, who fell one match short here of her own stab at sweeping the four majors in the same year – generates awe, not love. It might change but not while his nemesis is still swinging. He is an intelligent man and he knows what fans think of him, although he struggles to know why.
In a typically measured press conference he observed all the protocols of respect, even if his heart was screaming something diametrically opposed to his words. “I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m dominating,” said the player who has earned more than $14m this year alone and sits atop the heap more than 7,000 points clear of Federer, “but I definitely am very proud of all of the achievements.”
It was a classic humble brag.
He added: “To win against one of the biggest rivals, as you said, all-time grand slam champion, somebody that, you know, always keeps on fighting till the last point, keeps making you play an extra shot. Yeah, all these things now are very special to me.
“There was a lot of support for Roger. There was some for me. But I can’t sit here and criticise the crowd. On the contrary, it’s logical to expect a great player and a champion like Roger has the majority of the support anywhere I play him. I would say a super majority of places around the world are going to give him that support. I’m not there to judge who is supporting more or less. I’m there to play tennis. I accept the fact.”
That was heartfelt but it came from his brain not his heart. He told his staff after Wawrinka spoilt his charge at Roland Garros, “Do not mention the French. Do not mention the French.” He correctly wanted to gather his focus for the final slam tournament of the year, and he was justly rewarded, on the scoreboard at least.
Maybe one day the love he got in the city of love will spread. But the sad truth is, that is no given.
This article was written by Kevin Mitchell at Flushing Meadows, for theguardian.com on Monday 14th September 2015 15.28 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010