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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, August 24, 2021


““I think Novak is going to win two or four more [majors], perhaps deservedly be considered the overall greatest player that ever lived," former world No. 1 and ESPN analyst John McEnroe told the media today. 

Photo credit: Christopher Levy

Photo credit: Christopher Levy

Arthur Ashe Stadium’s blue hard court can be a punishing place to hunt for history.

A year after Novak Djokovic was booted from the 2021 US Open after accidentally hitting a lineswoman in the throat with the ball, the world No. 1 will bounce back and hit his way into history in his Flushing Meadows return, says Hall of Famer John McEnroe.

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Next week, the world No. 1 will launch his quest to capture the US Open, become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete the calendar Grand Slam and collect his 21st career major championship to take sole possession of the all-time men’s major mark he shares with Big 3 rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

In a conference call with the media today to promote ESPN’s US Open coverage, which begins Monday, August 30th at 11 a.m. on ESPN Deportes and at noon on ESPN, McEnroe said he “anticipates that [Djokovic] is going to win the tournament” and stakes the 34-year-old Serbian as a strong bet to match Margaret Court’s mark of 24 Grand Slam titles.

Pointing to the fact three former US Open champions—Federer, Nadal and reigning champion Dominic Thiem—are all out for the season due to injury, McEnroe says the biggest threats to Djokovic aren't even in the field.

The former world No. 1 in singles and doubles says two potential obstacles—sweltering New York heat and oppressive pressure playing for history—are the two primary stumbling blocks to Djokovic’s calendar Slam quest.

“I anticipate that he's going to win the tournament, that's what I anticipate,” McEnroe told the media. “I felt before Wimbledon started that he was going to win the Grand Slam. I felt like he was going to lose at the Olympics. The two-out-of-three format, just excessive travel, no fans, et cetera, I think contributed. I think the heat is the big thing.

“To me it's going to be him against the field. I pick him right now. The heat could be an issue for any player, any top player, any player for that matter. That could be a deciding factor if he were to lose to someone, if he got stuck in a situation where he was playing in really hot conditions like it's going to be tomorrow, if he was playing during the day. Otherwise I think he's going to do it. “

Wimbledon winner Djokovic has not played a match since suffering a pair of painful Olympic defeats to Alexander Zverev and Pablo Carreno Busta. McEnroe calls Djokovic the best mover he’s ever seen on a hard court and believes after his 2020 Flushing Meadows default, the top-seeded Serbian will not make a mis-step as he aims to separate himself from his wounded Big 3 rivals.

“Ironically all three of them at this unheard of number, 20 each, it almost feels like you want them to all end at the same number, but I don't think that's going to happen,” McEnroe said. “I think Novak is going to win two or four more [majors], perhaps deservedly be considered the overall greatest player that ever lived.”

Hall of Famer Pam Shriver says the biggest obstacle to derailing Djokovic’s Grand Slam dream is the man in the mirror.

“I actually like the fact that Novak has taken the time after Tokyo, after the year he's had, to get his mindset right for what's going to be the most pressure-packed tournament he's ever played. I think he's the one that's most likely to derail himself," ESPN analyst Shriver said. 

“But the players that Johnny mentioned are at this age, Medvedev, Zverev, Tsitsipas, if Berrettini is healthy, they're starting to really mature and get that bit of belief that in the biggest moments in the majors they can do it. Tsitsipas must have learned a lot from being up two sets to love in the finals of Roland Garros. Zverev last year losing to Thiem. I mean, I feel like if they get in that big match again, they're going to play just a little bit better.

“In the meantime, I always love to see what turns out for tennis history. Winning the calendar-year Grand Slam is as big as it gets.

The absence of his Big 3 rivals puts Djokovic under an even bigger microscope and will intensify the immense pressure he feels, but McEnroe believes the world No. 1 will master this moment.

"Obviously with Roger and Rafa not being here at the event, it's going to put even more attention on him and his quest for the slam. That's not going to make it any easier," McEnroe said. "Obviously it does open the doors for the Zverevs, Medvedevs, Tsitsipases of the world. Thiem isn't even here. He won it last year. It's strange times still.

"Hopefully it's going to have tons of fans. I mean, everyone's got their fingers crossed. It's going to be better obviously for everyone if it does, including Novak, who I think was negatively affected by that in Tokyo. But I still think he's going to do it. It's easier said than done, like Pam said. There's a reason it hasn't been done in 50 something years. It's tough. It's really tough. We'll see how he handles it. He handles it about as well as anyone I've ever seen in the last five, 10 years of his career. I think he's ready for the moment."

Forty years ago McEnroe made history in his hometown Slam becoming the last man to sweep US Open singles and doubles championships at the same Open.

When this US Open ends, McEnroe envisions Djokovic raising the title trophy—and serving as an inspiration in developing championship character for decades.

“He's actually already held four in a row; he just didn't win them all in the same year. Now he's got a chance to do this,” McEnroe said of Djokovic. “I'm absolutely amazed at his ability to improve, not only technically on a court, but also just as a human being, he's able to find sort of some sense of peace while you're out there competing at the highest level.

"I think it will be lessons that people will be looking at for the next 10, 20 years.”


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