By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Novak Djokovic probably felt like he was battling against 20,001 people in the U.S. Open final on Sunday, with grand slam king Roger Federer on the other side of the net backed by an Arthur Ashe Stadium full of his opponent's closest friends.
As the match reached its gripping climax, they cheered every point Federer won and celebrated Djokovic's errors as the Serb dug deep to eke out a 6-4 5-7 6-4 6-4 triumph.
There may have been a time when Djokovic would have been unsettled by his treatment but the world number one swallowed any resentment and maintained his composure until he found himself kissing the silver trophy for his 10 grand slam.
"I can't sit here and criticize the crowd," said Djokovic, who crowned a brilliant season in which he won three grand slams events and was runner-up in the fourth at Roland Garros.
"On the contrary, I think it's logical to expect that a great player and a champion like Roger has the majority of the support anywhere I play him.
"He absolutely deserves to have the support he does because of all the years and success that he had and the way he carries himself on and off the court. No question about it."
While Federer reached exalted status with his collection of an all-time record 17 grand slam titles, Djokovic is now the player dominating the men's game.
He has won nine slams in the last five years, collecting the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles in 2011 just as he has this year, and has held down the number one ranking in four of the past five seasons.
The mellowed Djokovic said he appreciated this grand slam treble even more than his 2011 breakthrough.
"I'm a different player, a different person today than I was 2011," he said. "As a father and a husband, experiencing a different variety of things in my life, it's a completely different approach to tennis today.
"I feel more fulfilled. I feel more complete as a player today than I was in 2011. Physically stronger, mentally more experienced and tougher as well."
Djokovic showed plenty of that toughness after he scraped his right arm, the back of his right hand and right leg when he tumbled to the ground in the first set, after a three-hour delay due to rain, but carried on regardless.
Federer had not dropped a set in the entire tournament but Djokovic wiped out that distinction in 42 minutes.
The Swiss great had lost only two break points in the tournament but matched that number within his first four service games against one of the game's greatest returners.
Djokovic, meanwhile, saved 19-of-23 break points held by Federer and rose up to cash in on six of his 13 opportunities in the final.
He was up by two breaks in the final set, only to see Federer roar back to break him once and threaten again in the final game before the Serb finally secured victory in a little less than three and a half hours.
"Today I was serving at 5-2 in the fourth set and Roger showed why he is a champion and... making me play to the last point," Djokovic said.
"I have a tremendous respect for Roger and what his game is representing to me and any other player."
The win puts Djokovic level with Bill Tilden on 10 slams. Next up are Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg on 11. Then Roy Emerson at 12, and Rafa Nadal and Pete Sampras with 14, just below Federer.
"I'm obviously flattered and honored to be a part of an elite group of players, legends of our sports," the Serb added.
"I'm 28. I have always valued the care for my body, and my mind and had this holistic approach to life.
"I will continue on with the same kind of lifestyle, same kind of approach. I think that kind of approach brought me to where I am today.
"Hopefully, this kind of approach will give me longevity and that I can have many more years to come, and as I said, many more opportunities to fight for these trophies."
As for winning Federer-like adulation with the crowds, he said: "I'm there to earn the support and hopefully in the future I can be in that position."
(Editing by John O'Brien)