The win-loss column may read 25-0, but Novak Djokovic’s Calendar Slam journey has had a few bumps along the way – and there may be more to come at the US Open.
Djokovic is aiming to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four majors in the same year, and needs to win just three more matches to complete the job. But his progress so far has not been silky smooth.
Djokovic has dropped a set in three of his four matches in New York and hasn’t hit top gear on a regular basis. Eurosport pundit Alex Corretja said after his win over Kei Nishikori, when Djokovic dropped the opening set, that the world No 1 was “playing with fire” by starting slow in the match. But is it a cause for concern?
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His previous Grand Slam performances this year suggest maybe not. At the Australian Open he only won one of his first five matches in straight sets and very nearly went out to Taylor Fritz in the third round after suffering an abdominal injury. He was pushed to four sets by Milos Raonic and Alexander Zverev after that match, but then swept through the semi-finals and final in impressive fashion.
At the French Open he had to come from two sets down against Lorenzo Musetti and Stefanos Tsitsipas, while also winning in four against Matteo Berrettini. And even at Wimbledon, where he seemed relatively untroubled, he dropped a set in his opening match against young Brit Jack Draper, and also in the final against Berrettini.
The comebacks and battling wins have served to highlight Djokovic’s immense mental strength and fighting spirit, but losing sets early on and prolonging court time doesn’t seem like the ideal way to win a major. That is especially the case in New York where the weather is hot and the effects of a gruelling season could start to take their toll. In the third-round win over Nishikori, Djokovic spent more time on the court (three hours and 32 minutes) than in all-but two of his other Grand Slam matches this year (the French Open semi-final and final).
So what is the issue for Djokovic, if there is one? Against Jenson Brooksby in the fourth round it was a case of the opponent being too good as the young American swept through a surprising 6-1 first set. “He played a perfect first set,” said Djokovic. “Everything he intended to do he executed it perfectly.” But against Nishikori it was a case of a slow start from Djokovic. “I was quite passive. I was too far back in the court. He was dictating the play. I was still trying to find the rhythm, find the tempo.”
The most important thing for Djokovic is that he has been able to turn things around so far. He has the physical and mental skill to wear down opponents and play the match on his terms. “I really wanted him to feel my presence on the court,” he said after beating Brooksby. “I wanted the energy to shift on my side because he was a better player for a set and a half. He had the momentum…I wanted to wear him down and it worked.”
The ability to wear opponents down like this isn’t one that you associate with many of the other top players. Rafael Nadal relished physical contests, but it was not one of Roger Federer’s great strengths, and Djokovic’s two main rivals at the US Open, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev, seem more content leading from the start. For Djokovic it almost seems like he is happy to bide his time in matches at majors, knowing that in best of five he has the time to figure his opponent out, assert his authority and turn things in his favour. He even admitted at the French Open that he didn’t mind losing TWO sets to Musetti. “I actually felt more nervous when I was starting the match than when I was two sets down. To be honest, I even liked the fact that I lost the first couple of sets because I just played under a certain kind of tension and wasn't able to go through my shots. Too many unforced errors and just not playing and not feeling great in the first couple of sets.”
Djokovic said something similar after the Wimbledon final; that it was almost a “relief” to get the first set against Berrettini out of the way, even though he lost it, as he was then able to play more freely. Perhaps the same applies now, maybe even to a greater extent.
There are very few players that would be content to lose the first two sets of a five-set match given the huge handicap it creates. But Djokovic has proved that he is stronger mentally and physically than most of the players on tour, and there is an air of invincibility around him at Grand Slams. He has only lost three matches at majors in the last three years – twice at the French Open and once to Stan Wawrinka at the US Open when he was battling a shoulder injury. Outlasting Djokovic on a hard court, even after winning the opening set, is very difficult. So too is overpowering him, given his fantastic defensive skills.
But with three matches left to create history, will Djokovic dial up his focus from the start? His final three potential opponents – Berrettini, Zverev and Medvedev – all have the weapons to push him hard, especially the latter two. A slow start in the semi-finals or final could see the Calendar Slam hopes quickly fade. And how will the mounting pressure affect Djokovic? Any suggestions that it won’t have been denied by his coach Goran Ivanisevic.
“He has pressure,” former world No 2 Ivanisevic told the ATP. “Everybody feels the pressure. You can see in the matches sometimes he plays better. He didn’t play seven perfect matches at Wimbledon, but he won. You don’t see that so much because he’s winning.”
“He’s a guy who the more pressure he has, the better he plays. That is why he is such a champion. That is why for me he is the biggest tennis player in the history of the sport.”
Djokovic has a chance to write his name in the history books again over the next few days, but will he need to be at top gear to do so?
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