Olympic gold slipped from his fingers, but in New York, history has its eyes on Novak Djokovic
By Kartikay Dutta, UG23
On Centre Courts at Tokyo’s Ariake Arena, Novak Djokovic had Alexander Zverev pinned against the ropes. After demolishing his young German adversary 6-1 in the first set, he had taken a break and a 3-1 lead in the second. He was 3 games away from entering his first Olympic final and a step closer to earning an Olympic gold, the only piece of metalware missing from his glimmering trophy cabinet.
It all seemed to be turning up Djokovic, but down the other end of the court, Zverev saw the impending loss as the do-or-die scenario which it was. It allowed the big German to open up his shoulders, be braver in his shotmaking, aim closer to the lines, and let his power do the talking. He reeled off 5 games in a row to take the second set from behind and send the match to a deciding set. And then he sprinted his way to 4 more.
Zverev would, from the unlikeliest of positions, pull off the biggest win of his career, downing the world number one before sprinting his way to the gold medal himself. (Now embroiled in a legal battle over domestic abuse, it would be a brief zenith before a devastating nadir.)
Djokovic has, almost inexplicably, missed out on the Olympic gold in the past, losing to Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina in both 2012 and 2016. This year, however, it had added significance: the Olympic gold would be an ingredient (in fact, the chief ingredient) in a historic golden slam. That is to say, all four major titles, as well as the Olympic gold, a feat only achieved by one individual in the past, Steffi Graf in 1994.
But while the loss does prevent Djokovic from achieving the golden slam, history is still well within his reach. He is three-quarters of the way to the calendar grand slam, i.e. all four major tournaments in a year. After continuing his reign over the year-opening Australian Open in Melbourne, he would beat King of Clay Rafael Nadal on the dirt of Roland Garros (and in so doing become the first male player in the Open Era to win each major title twice), before taking full advantage of a depleted field on the Wimbledon lawns in July. He has taken the first three — and now, the fourth awaits.
Djokovic has twice before taken 3 majors in one calendar year, first in 2011 and then in 2015. On both occasions, he lost out in the later stages of the French Open, to the Swiss duo of Roger Federer (who himself has accomplished three majors in a year thrice) and Stanislas Wawrinka. He even has the accomplishment of the so-monikered ‘Serena Slam’ (that is, to be the defending champion of all four slams simultaneously if not in a calendar year) from when he won Wimbledon and USO in 2015 before clinching the AO and Roland Garros in 2016. And while these successes are undoubtedly historic and impressive, they are not the real deal, as it were. They are not the grand slam.
On the men’s side, the grand slam has only been achieved by Rod Laver, who did it twice in 1962 and 1969. The first of these came in the amateur era, and the second in the Open Era, the timeframe which is recognized as the basis for statistics in professional tennis. Novak Djokovic would become, therefore, only the second man to earn this rare and prestigious badge of honour, and in doing so would only further his argument in what is within tennis circles known as the ‘G.O.A.T. debate’ — an endless discussion of who from the trio of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Djokovic is truly the standout Greatest Of All Time.
In a year which saw him surpass Federer’s record for number of weeks spent at number one in the rankings, it will make him the forerunner in this debate. More substantially, it will mean that he will also overtake the other two in slam title count: for the moment, all three are beautifully and poetically tied on 20 each. The 21st, if it arrives on September 12th, will be dripping with significance for Djokovic, in many multitudes of ways.
It helps his cause (but does not blemish the triumphs) that the field on the ATP tour throughout the year has been surprisingly thin. Nadal has battled with injury throughout the year, while Federer could not make a fairytale return near the age of 40 as he returned from knee surgeries, unceremoniously bageled by Hubert Hurkacz in Wimbledon. Looking away from his Great Adversaries, Dominic Thiem has himself struggled with a valley in his form as well as a broken wrist — Thiem, who has shown he has the fitness, weaponry, and temperament to hurt Djokovic on a consistent basis, on both hard courts and clay.
But, as Zverev’s performance in Tokyo illustrated, the season has not been short of contenders looking to make their mark. Defending World Tour Finals champion Daniil Medvedev and Zverev were both dispatched of in Australia. Matteo Berrettini, Lorenzo Musetti, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and of course Rafa Nadal (the Mallorcan native has only lost thrice ever at Roland Garros, of those twice to Djokovic) in Paris. Denis Shapovalov and Berrettini, both big servers with equally big groundstrokes on the faster courts at Wimbledon were fended off. These are all young, hungry future champions with the drive to give it their all against the likes of Djokovic, with the recognition that any win over the Serb in a slam event would be heralded as a result for the ages. With his signature style of flexible defence and brutally accurate shotmaking, Djokovic (who can justifiably now be called a grizzled veteran) evaded their attempts at his throne, continuing his relentless march towards history.
And history has come a-calling. Djokovic’s legacy as an all-time great of the sport has long since been cemented, but the completion of a calendar grand slam in New York will make it larger than life in ways that athletes are very rarely capable of. And it is true that Berrettini and Tsitsipas, Medvedev and Zverev, all are capable of turning it up to 11 and asking all the questions of Novak. And it is true that his legacy will always be strained and tainted by his demeanor and at times questionable actions (it was in the US Open last year that he injured a linesperson with a ball struck out of frustration, and his defining moment at the Olympics was the image of him hurling his racket into the stands, the fact that they were empty notwithstanding.) But Nole has always had the answers to the young challengers barking at the foot of his throne. And Nole has always had the answers for all those who have criticized him in the past.
History has come a-calling. Novak Djokovic, a true champion, the man with the physique of a gymnast and the soul of a fighter, is sure to answer. The only question at the US Open is whether the would-be usurpers can stop him.