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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Tuesday July 13, 2021


Since 2003, men’s tennis has been absolutely bonkers. Fly to the moon on a skateboard bonkers, if you’re scoring at home. Of the last 72 major singles titles on offer, three men—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic—have taken the lion’s share (60!) and sent the sport into a perpetual hyperspace where nothing is impossible and all previous records are rendered obsolete.

Tennis Express

Except one.

That, of course, being the calendar-year Grand Slam, last notched on the men's side by the great Rod Laver in 1969. Throughout this mind-melting era of Federer, Djokovic and Nadal, where unprecedented record book refashioning has become the norm, no man has even flirted with winning the calendar slam (well, except Djokovic, but more on him later). There’s good reason for that: Djokovic, Federer and Nadal are a three-headed monster that has been forced to feed on itself to survive.

If you’ve been watching the tennis tour since 2004 you know that for each victory these pillars of tennis have achieved there has been blood-red carnage on the other side of the net. A crying Federer, in shock that he could be so thoroughly defeated on his beloved Wimbledon grass, in 2008; a hoodwinked Nadal, unable to stand after five hours and 53 minutes of suffering and gore in Australia, in 2012. A shell-shocked Djokovic in the spring of 2011, rocked by a fiery Federer in Paris, his 43-match winning streak in tatters beneath the finger wag heard round the world.

But now, finally, as the sun was supposedly supposed to be setting on this skateboard-to-the-moon era, the three-headed monster has become a cyclops of intent. Novak Djokovic, suddenly level with Federer and Nadal in the all-time men’s singles Grand Slam titles department at 20 (after winning eight of the last 12 major titles on offer), is seeking a singular achievement to pad his already glittering legacy – the calendar-year Grand Slam.


On Sunday at Wimbledon Djokovic brilliantly defused the snarl of Matteo Berrettini’s grass-court game to win his sixth Wimbledon and become the first man since Laver (52 years ago, in 1969) to win the first three Grand Slam titles of a tennis season. Djokovic’s work is not finished yet, but already a lot of heavy lifting has been done. By winning another Wimbledon he further cements his reputation as the most well-rounded and adaptable player of the Big Three.

If Nadal is the King of Clay and Federer is the King of Grass, then Djokovic—at this point and time in tennis history—is the king of it all. In the last six weeks alone he has conducted one of the greatest sneak attacks of all time in Paris, where he demonstrated his clay-court prowess and uncanny gumption by becoming the first man to ever defeat Nadal on the terre battue more than once at Roland Garros; he followed that, in rapid fashion, with a crowning achievement on Wimbledon’s grass, where he once again demonstrated that he isn’t just a usurper on the perennial ryegrass of the All England Club, he may be Wimbledon’s greatest ever men’s champion when all is said and done.

Even if Djokovic doesn’t surpass Federer’s achievements at Wimbledon—105 career wins and eight singles titles—the World No.1 has already proven by his accomplishments at Roland-Garros and Wimbledon that he is the most adaptable player of the trio. Want more proof? Just last week at Wimbledon, Djokovic became the only man to have notched at least 75 wins at all four majors.

History rewards all types of attributes. Aesthetics, magnetism, humility, competitiveness. And history will be kind to the Big Three, both collectively and individually, but in the end history tends to turn a blind eye on the intangibles as it focuses its lens on the critical column: winning. And that is why Djokovic’s quest for the calendar slam creates a new burden of proof for the Big Three. Who can do what the others have never dared to? In a manner so convincing?

Tennis is about adaptation, about ingenuity, craft. But it is also about longevity, both in the short-term (see Australian Open final, 2012) and the long-term (see Novak Djokovic, 2021). At 34, Djokovic has locked up his eighth major title since turning 30—two more than any other male player in history (Nadal has six, Federer four), and he’s now pursuing the true mission impossible of men’s tennis.

Staying power plus slaying power, a lethal combination.

It’s no coincidence that Djokovic is within reach of the calendar slam, it is simply testament to the characteristics that he possesses. His ability to adapt to each surface and thrive. His willingness to accept the challenges of facing up to Nadal on clay and Federer on grass, a painful quest that often left him discouraged and downtrodden in the past.

His subtle yet transcendent manner of approaching the sport from the feet up, with movement, through the impeachable core. Mobility, flexibility. His hunger and willingness to ask more of himself—even this year at Wimbledon, at 34, Djokovic produced his most efficient first-serve numbers, by far. His grass-court dominance is not happenstance, he has embraced the art of playing—and winning—on grass more than any other player.

And it leads us here, starry-eyed and jaw-dropped. In an era of smashed records, where legends of the past were rapidly rendered obsolete, there has been one glittering prize that has proven unattainable—until now. In a defining era for men’s tennis, Novak Djokovic is on the cusp of redefining what is possible for the Big Three. This is his soliloquy. He has arrived here by seeking out his target and pursuing the best—first the front-running figures of Federer and Nadal, then the best of himself, from the inside out.

“I have to pay a great tribute to Rafa and Roger, they are legends of our sport and they are the two most important players that I ever faced in my career–they are the reason that I am where I am today," he said on Sunday after winning Wimbledon, letting the world in on how his plan for tennis domination has evolved, against all odds. "They’ve helped me realize what I need to do in order to get stronger mentally, physically, tactically; when I broke into the top-10 for the first time I lost for three, four years, most of the big matches that I played against these two guys, and something shifted at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, and the last ten years has been an incredible journey that is not stopping here.”

That incredible journey leads us to this moment in time, and we watch incredulously, waiting for one last shift of tennis' tectonic plates as Djokovic plots his next move, setting his sights on redemption and ascension at the US Open.

He may make it. He may not. But there’s inspiration to be had simply from the fact that Novak Djokovic always has been and always will be the player with enough guts and gumption to truly believe that he can outpace everyone and everything that challenges him, even himself.

 

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