Sometimes it looks so easy. Win a Grand Slam, get to world No 1, win some more Grand Slams, break decade-old records, win even more Grand Slams. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Serena Williams have won so often over the last 20 years that it’s become routine, inexorable, almost inevitable. But it’s not.
Especially not when the weight of history is now so heavy, as Djokovic found out at the US Open.
Bidding to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four Grand Slam titles in the same year, Djokovic came up short, producing arguably his worst performance of the year in arguably the most important match of his career. He was flat, looked exhausted, and lost to Daniil Medvedev in just two hours and 15 minutes.
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Afterwards he said he was “relieved” it was over.
New York has now crushed the hopes of two Calendar Slams in the 21st century. Serena Williams was less forthcoming with her feelings after her shock semi-final loss to Roberta Vinci in 2015, insisting it wasn’t the occasion that got to her. “I didn’t feel pressure. I never feel pressure.” Yet the flat-footed performance and the errors at important moments told their own story, just as they did with Djokovic. Even the very best are not immune from pressure, not when there is so much at stake.
Former US Open champion Dominic Thiem said the tension around Djokovic was “simply inhuman” as he looked to not only win his fourth major of the year, but the 21st of his career that would move him ahead of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the all-time standings.
As Billie Jean King said, “pressure is a privilege”, but it can also be a burden.
Sometimes it forces players to rush things they might otherwise take their time over. “All I wanted was the ball: put it on the spot, get it over and done with,” reflected Gareth Southgate after his crucial penalty miss against Germany in 1996. Sometimes players don’t perform at their best when under immense pressure, as happened to Naomi Osaka the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Sometimes the pressure builds up over a season, as it did with the New England Patriots when they were bidding to become only the second team in NFL history to go unbeaten. They went 18-0 before losing in the Super Bowl in 2007. “It's cumulative,” kicker Kyle Brady later said. “As the season progressed, that cumulative exhaustion - it gets you every season but especially a season like that.”
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Djokovic had been happy to talk about the pressure on his shoulders heading into New York. “Pressure, we all have it, but top guys, especially for me here with pressure on the line. Pressure is huge but at the same time I thrive on that.” It’s sometimes easy to dismiss or downplay the impact of pressure because players get asked about it so often. The pressure of taking a penalty, the pressure on a putt on the final green, the pressure in the crucial minutes of a Formula One race. But this was pressure on another level.
How did Laver deal with it all those years ago? “I never said I was going for a Grand Slam; that's pressure right there," he said ahead of the tournament.
In the end it wasn’t just the pressure, but mental and physical fatigue too. Djokovic spent far longer on court than Medvedev during the tournament and had a gruelling semi-final match against Alexander Zverev. He also faced regular questions about the Calendar Slam and admitted he didn’t like to think about it because it was a “burden”. It was revealing to hear him say after the match that he was “glad it was over”.
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The build-up for this tournament and everything mentally and emotionally I had to deal with the last two weeks was just a lot…it was a lot to handle. I was glad that finally the run was over. Of course I’m disappointed with my overall performance. It’s a very tough loss. I know I could have and should have done better. But it’s sports.
There are simply no guarantees in sports, and Djokovic now faces the challenge of picking himself up and going again as he bids to win his 21st Grand Slam title. The schedule seems ideal as his next chance is at the Australian Open – his most successful Grand Slam – and then the French Open, where he could be the favourite after winning last year, especially if Nadal is not fully fit. But even though there was relief after the US Open final, the pressure will always be there. For Williams it has grown and grown as her pursuit of a 24th major has gone on and on. She has lost four finals since winning her 23rd Grand Slam and has been beaten in two semi-finals. Is there a chance the next few years will go the same way for Djokovic? Is he destined to finish on 20 majors alongside Federer and Nadal?
And what about the winners in New York? What about the pressure on their shoulders? Both only showed glimpses of it over the past two weeks as they breezed past every opponent put in front of them, but it was there. “He had a lot of pressure. I had a lot of pressure, too,” said Medvedev as he won his first Grand Slam title after two previous final defeats. The pressure only showed on Medvedev in the final as he struggled to close out the match, just as it had done the previous night in the finishing stages of Emma Raducanu's win over Leylah Fernandez.
The question for Medvedev is can he back up it, which Thiem has so far failed to do after winning in New York last year. For Raducanu, she is still seeing things as a “free swing” after a meteoric rise. “I don’t feel absolutely any pressure. I’m still only 18 years old. I’m just having a free swing at anything that comes my way. That’s how I faced every match here in the States. It got me this trophy, so I don’t think I should change anything.”
But things will change in time, the pressure will change, and nothing that Djokovic, Raducanu or Medvedev achieve should be taken for granted.
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