Novak Djokovic has been here before, nipping on the heels of major title No. 21.
He had a probability on the U.S. Open last summer. Winning the lads’s singles final against Daniil Medvedev would have been a signal moment in sports. Djokovic would have burst through the logjam he’d shared with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: 20 titles in majors, then the high-water mark in men’s tennis.
And Djokovic would have develop into the primary male player since Rod Laver in 1969 to attain a Grand Slam, capturing Wimbledon and the French, Australian and U.S. Open titles in the identical 12 months.
It wasn’t to be.
Then he seemed destined to record his twenty first victory in a Grand Slam event at this 12 months’s Australian Open, the most important where he has emerged victorious nine times. He makes playing within the Melbourne hothouse seem like a stroll through a shady summer garden.
But we all know what happened as an alternative.
Djokovic was detained after which deported after a tense standoff over whether he needs to be allowed to compete in Australia despite having proudly refused to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Point made and the moment lost by each the Australian government and one in every of the world’s best-known anti-vaccine athletes.
With the French Open underway, Djokovic is, in the end, trying again for his twenty first major win. By virtue of his No. 1 rating, he’s the highest seed in the lads’s draw. “I’m going to Paris with confidence and good feelings about my probabilities there,” he said before the tournament.
He said much the identical the last two times he reached for the grail of 21 Grand Slam events. Nevertheless it was Nadal who notched that historic record first, ahead of Djokovic and Federer, when Nadal stepped back into the vaults of greatness and beat Medvedev on the Australian Open in jaw-dropping fashion.
Can Djokovic get out of the stall and tie Nadal? If he doesn’t do it soon he may begin drawing comparisons with an equally talented, complex and perplexing champion — Serena Williams, who stays stuck one major behind Margaret Court’s record mark of 24.
Like Williams, who at 40 will not be playing on the tour and should be heading toward retirement, Djokovic faces snarling pressure to maintain up together with his peers. It will not be getting any easier. On Sunday, he turned 35. His window is closing — the flexibility to call on match-to-match consistency narrows with each grinding season.
Consider all he has faced this 12 months. Global anger over his determination to avoid vaccination. The hangover from the crushing loss in the ultimate of the U.S. Open. The months when he looked like a meager facsimile of his old self on the tennis court.
After Australia, he was barred from playing in two big hardcourt tournaments, in Indian Wells and Miami, because the US correctly required foreign visitors to be vaccinated to enter the country. Then got here a stretch of choppy, angst-riddled play, which we had not seen from him in years. There have been early-round defeats to the 123rd and forty sixth players on the planet. Before adoring hometown fans, he struggled through the Serbia Open and crumbled within the finals. He fell in Madrid to the 19-year-old Spanish upstart Carlos Alcaraz.
Can Djokovic win his twenty first on the French Open? There was little hint he can be as much as the duty until this month in Rome, on the last big tuneup before Roland Garros.
In Rome, it was all there again for Djokovic: lithe, deep and consistent returns, a pickpocket’s moxie through the tensest moments. Djokovic didn’t lose a set all tournament. In the ultimate, where he defeated fourth-ranked Stefanos Tsitsipas, he took the opening stanza, 6-0.
He looked back on Australia and the brutal aftermath in a news conference and spoke of how the experience wouldn’t bow him. Djokovic promised to show the jagged pain of getting been barred from play and the pressure he felt from the backlash to his favor. “It is going to fuel me,” he said, steely eyed, “for the subsequent challenge.”
Such a mind-set is as vintage Djokovic as his scythe-like down-the-line backhand.
Left unmentioned was how he has been hailed a hero among the many anti-vaccine crowd for his refusenik stance, a view that’s not possible to fathom when the coronavirus has caused the death of no less than six million people across the globe. He has even vowed that if it got here between selecting whether to be vaccinated or keep playing skilled tennis, he would remain on the sideline.
His commitment to that stance is silly, but his resistance offers a window into what makes Djokovic tick. Enduring stubbornness sets him apart greater than his movement, consistency or dart-like accuracy.
He’s a real believer — on the court and off it — and he has long latched himself to among the self-help movement’s wildest false claims, every part from telepathy to the notion that loving thoughts can change the molecular structure of water.
Now you would possibly think those ideas are pretty ridiculous. I sure do. But for Djokovic, clinging to belief in what could appear not possible has worked in astonishing ways.
We’ve seen it countless times on the largest stages.
Remember his great escapes against Federer. The victories after facing two match points against Federer’s serve on the U.S. Open in 2010 and 2011. The marathon final win at Wimbledon in 2019, when he turned Federer away after the grass-court master held yet one more pair of match points.
I used to be there and might still hear the frenzied Centre Court crowd yelling, “Federer! Federer! Federer!” ringing in my ears. But that’s not what Djokovic heard. He said after the match that because the roars rose like a storm for his opponent, he mentally converted the rhythmic chants to something that spurred him on — “Novak! Novak! Novak!”
Remember, too, the French Open of 2021, the bruising semifinal win against Nadal, essentially the most recent act within the duo’s 58-match rivalry. The Serb followed that with a comeback from two sets down against Tsitsipas to win the championship.
Now the French Open is again underway. Victory at Roland Garros is as intense a journey as exists in sports — especially now, as players deploy a combination of power, touch, bounding topspin and athleticism in ways in which not way back would have been unimaginable.
Age and years of leg-churning wear on tour add one other layer of difficulty. Take a look at Nadal, also 35 and currently battling foot and rib injuries severe enough to stir rumors of imminent retirement.
These two will again attempt to fend off a solid of younger stars in Paris. They are going to have eyes regular on one particularly: Alcaraz, who plays with the limitless élan of a teen and a veteran’s wisdom and strength.
All three are in the identical half of the attract Paris, bidding for a spot within the finals. Can Djokovic make it that far and at last win No. 21? I won’t bet against a player so able to conjuring unshakable magic.