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US Open 2023: Novak Djokovic is back for the first time in 2 years and seeking a 24th major

FILE - Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, reacts to the crowd after losing to Daniil Medvedev, of Russia, in the men's singles final of the US Open tennis championships Sept. 12, 2021, in New York. The match was Djokovic's most recent one in New York. He missed 2022's U.S. Open because he was not vaccinated against COVID-19. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Novak Djokovic is back in the United States, back in New York — and back at the U.S. Open for the first time in two years.

Unable to compete at Flushing Meadows in 2022 because he was not allowed to fly to the country as a foreign citizen who is not vaccinated against COVID-19, the 23-time Grand Slam champion will be back in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday as play begins in the season’s final major tournament.

He was asked Friday whether he harbored some resentment over the way things happened; Djokovic sat out tournaments in California and Florida in addition to the U.S. Open because of a federal rule related to the pandemic that was lifted in May.

“No, there was no anger. It was last year during the Open that I felt it’s a pity that I’m not there. I felt sad for not being able to participate,” Djokovic said with a shrug of his shoulders, draped in a gray hoodie. “But this year, I mean, is this year. I don’t think about what happened in the last year or last couple of years. Just focusing my attention to this year’s tournament.”

The last match the 36-year-old from Serbia played in Ashe was the 2021 U.S. Open final, a 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 loss to Daniil Medvedev. Not only did that drop Djokovic’s record in title matches at Flushing Meadows to 3-6 but, of more significance, it left him one victory shy of completing the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men’s tennis since Rod Laver’s in 1969.

Djokovic wept at the end of that match, something he attributed that day to a mix of relief at his pursuit of the milestone no longer hanging over him and of appreciation for the way the thousands of spectators saluted his effort.

“What I felt from the crowd — that kind of connection and love and support that they gave me throughout the entire match, and also in the closing ceremony — was something that I carry still in my heart,” he said Friday. “I still feel vibes from that night of the finals, two years ago. I’ll try to use that for this year’s tournament.”

While that bit of history went by the wayside, Djokovic is still winning and chasing more achievements.

He already has won more major singles championships than any other man in tennis history, one more than Rafael Nadal and three more than Roger Federer. But that’s not to say he wouldn’t love to get No. 24, which would put him one ahead of Serena Williams for the most in the Open era.

He has spent more weeks ranked at No. 1 than any man or woman. But that doesn’t mean he would mind overtaking current ATP leader Carlos Alcaraz simply by defeating U.S. Open rookie Alexandre Muller on Monday.

Competitors know that Djokovic can find motivation anywhere. They also know — based on his titles at the Australian Open in January and French Open in June, and his run to the Wimbledon final in July, and his victory over Alcaraz in the Cincinnati Masters final last weekend — that he's still a, if not the, favorite in every tournament he enters.

“Everything he does in the game is unbelievable,” Alcaraz said.

“I mean, he’s Novak. He’s always performing well. He’s always locked in,” said Taylor Fritz, an American ranked No. 9. “He’s obviously the person to beat.”

And even Djokovic can't say for sure when that will no longer be the case.

“I don’t know how many more Slams I’ll have. I’ll still keep going. I don’t have an end in my mind at the moment,” he said. “I also understand that things are different when you’re 36, so I have to be more appreciative, a bit more, I guess, present, treating every Grand Slam as maybe your last one in terms of commitment and performance.”

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AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis