08.29.21: Chasing history

Novak Djokovic chases tennis history, seeking a calendar Grand Slam.

Novak Djokovic (Serbia), 2015 Western & Southern Open tennis tournament, Mason, Ohio.

Novak Djokovic seeks a calendar Grand Slam

Tech specs

  • Date/time: Aug 19, 2015 5:09 PM   
  • Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mark II
  • Lens: EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM +1.4x 
  • Focal length: 420mm
  • Aperture: f/4
  • Shutter: 1/1000 second
  • ISO: 320

Novak Djokovic, a professional tennis player from Serbia, is chasing history.

Djokovic is the first male tennis player since Australian Rod Laver in 1969 to win the first three tennis majors of the year. For Djokovic, that’s the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon. If he wins the U.S. Open in New York, which starts tomorrow, he will be the first male to complete a calendar-year sweep of the majors — a grand slam — since Laver did it in 1969. 

But Djokovic won’t win the extremely rare “golden slam” — the four majors plus the Olympic gold. In late July he lost in three sets  in the Olympics semifinals to Alexander Zverev of Germany. (Steffi Graf of Germany won a women’s singles Grand Slam in 1988, the last person to win a calendar year grand slam. She also won the Olympic gold that year and is the only person in history to win a calendar year “golden slam,” winning the Australian, French, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and Olympic gold in the same year.)

But beyond a calendar year grand slam, a Djokovic victory in the U.S. Open would be his 21st victory in a major, breaking a tie with Roger Federer of Switzerland and Rafael Nadal of Spain for most career majors and placing Djokovic atop the list in any debate about the greatest male tennis player of all time. With both Federer and Nadal missing this year’s U.S. Open because of injuries, Djokovic’s path to the title looks a bit easier.

I got this photo of Djokovic during the 2015 Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. At that time, Djokovic had won nine majors, trailing Federer’s 17 and Nadal’s 14. It was an impressive total, but not enough to put him in the conversation with Federer and Nadal as the best active player, let alone the best of all time.

But that has changed in the six years since.

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have dominated men’s tennis. Since Wimbledon in 2003, the three have won 60 of the 72 majors played. 

Federer is 40, has battled injuries and hasn’t won a major since 2018’s Australian Open. Nadal is 35, has also battled injuries, and though he’s won the U.S. Open and French Open in 2019 and the French Open in 2020, he’s showing signs of decline.

Djokovic is 34 and has been relatively injury free. He’s won eight of the 14 majors played since the start of 2018 (Wimbledon wasn’t played in 2020 because of the COVID pandemic). He is by far the most dominant player in men’s tennis today. And as much as I enjoy watching Federer and Nadal on the court (I’m a huge Federer fan), I admit it’s difficult to argue against Djokovic as the best ever.

Even U.S. tennis great John McEnroe  has said that Djokovic is “playing better than he’s ever played. I think he’ll probably win at least four or five more … depending on staying healthy.”

If Djokovic does reach 24 or 25 majors, he’ll set a career mark that should last for a long, long time. Among active players, Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland and Andy Murray of Great Britain each have three majors, the most among players not named Djokovic, Federer or Nadal. Wawrinka is 36 and battling injuries. Andy Murray is 34 and is attempting an unprecedented comeback from hip replacement surgery. Dominic Thiem, a 27-year-old German, won the U.S. Open last year for his first major, but Federer (injury) and Nadal (COVID travel concerns) skipped the tournament and Djokovic was defaulted in the early rounds after hitting a ball in anger that struck a lines person. So Thiem’s win came without facing any of the big three.

No other active player has won a major.

But who knows how long a career record for men’s tennis major titles will last. When American Pete Sampras won the last of his 14 majors in 2002, easily surpassing the previous record of 11 set by Bjorn Borg in 1981, the talk was about how his total might not be surpassed. The following year, Federer won the first of his 20 and passed Sampras in 2009. In 2005, Nadal won the first of his 20. In 2008, Djokovic won the first of his 20. 

Tennis changes. Records fall. But it could be decades — if ever — before another male player approaches the numbers put up by Djokovic, Federer or Nadal.

Djokovic is 34 and has been relatively injury free. He’s won eight of the 14 majors played since the start of 2018. … He is by far the most dominant player in men’s tennis today. 

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