By Shahid Judge
“I’m going to treat the next match,” says Novak Djokovic after reaching the US Open final, “like it’s the last of my career.”
If ever you weren’t sure what his war-cry would sound like, there it was — spoken with a smile in a crowded Arthur Ashe Stadium. It’s a well-documented fact that Djokovic enjoys chasing and setting new records. And when he’s worked his way to get into such a position, why not?
In this era of men’s tennis that may never be repeated again, three names have risen higher than anybody else. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic stand on a pedestal built on 20 Grand Slam titles each. And they look down at the comfortable gap on the rest of the tennis field — the only players that come close to them are the injury-ravaged duo of Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray, both with three titles to their name, and both, with great respect to them, well past their prime.
But Djokovic is on the cusp of going better than his greatest rivals. The significance of the final on Sunday, against the talented unorthodox Russian Daniil Medvedev, is not just the possible 21st Slam. It’s the chance to become the first male player in 52 years to win all four Majors in a single calendar year.
The last man to do it, the great Rod Laver in 1969, was there in the VIP box, watching Djokovic overcome Alexander Zverev in the semi-final. No doubt the legendary Australian will be there to watch the final as well, waiting to see if history will be created. But Djokovic won’t be bothered by any of it.
“I know everybody wants to talk about history, I’m just trying to lock into what I know works for me,” he said.
What works for him is the dogged defence — possibly the best in the world — coupled with an attacking game that has become sharper and more devastating in the past few years. Federer has the graceful aggression, Nadal has the blistering top-spin, Djokovic, a defensive baseliner, has the consistency of play and an unassailable mental toughness to go with it. How else would somebody overcome two championship points against Federer at Wimbledon to seal the title as he did in 2019.
That, of course, was his 16th title. He’s now looking to cap off a remarkable 2021 season with his 21st title and settle the whole ‘Greatest of All Time (GOAT)’ debate.
Yet this has been in the offing. Among the Big 3 of tennis, Djokovic was well expected to be the one to hold the record of most Grand Slam titles by the time the trio called it quits. The
Serbian has an all-court game that gets him past fast or slow hard courts, makes him a force on the slowing grass at Wimbledon, and his tireless running and tenacity makes him a perfect match on clay.
And once he finds his groove, seldom has he been denied. We saw it when he became the first man since Laver to hold all four Slam titles at the same time, when he won Wimbledon and the US Open titles in 2015 and the Australian Open and French Open Majors in 2016. But that wasn’t the same as doing it all in the same year, as he can now.
And if it does happen, he’ll do it in the most telling way.
Ever since Nadal won the French Open in 2015, Roland Garros has been his domain. Before this year, he’d lost on the Parisian clay just twice — to Robin Soderling in 2009 and Djokovic in 2015. No player had ever beaten Nadal and gone on to win the title at the same edition of the Slam. Till this year.
The Spaniard had dismantled Djokovic in the 2020 final, but when they met in the semi-final stage this year, it was Djokovic who pulled off a convincing four-set win. In the final he overcame a two-sets-to-love deficit to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas.
When the time comes, the 34-year-old knows how to shift gears like no other. He’s been doing it throughout the US Open as well. He dropped the first set to Kei Nishikori, Jenson Brooksby, Matteo Berrettini, and then Zverev in the semi-final. And then he takes over from there.
He’s currently won 27 Grand Slam matches this year. It’s a big achievement in itself, and is something any tennis player, anywhere in the world can be proud of. But not Djokovic.
“Why should I be happy? The job is not done. That’s the kind of attitude I have.” If ever you wanted to hear another Djokovic war-cry, there it was.