Novak Djokovic won the major title No. 21 has succeeded.
He had a chance at the US Open last summer. Defeating Danil Medvedev in the men’s singles final would have signaled the sports world. Djokovic would have been able to break through the predicament he shared with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. He set a record for the best in 20 majors and then in men’s tennis.
And Djokovic may have become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to achieve a Grand Slam, winning Wimbledon and French, Australian and US Open titles that same year.
It couldn’t be.
Then it seemed destined to be his 21st win at the Australian Open Grand Slam this year. He makes playing in the Melbourne Greenhouse look like a stroll through a shady summer garden.
But we know what happened instead.
Djokovic was detained and then deported after a tense standoff over whether he should be allowed to compete in Australia despite proudly refusing to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
A point and a lost moment made by the Australian government and one of the world’s most famous anti-vaccine athletes.
With the French Open in full swing, Djokovic is finally trying to win his 21st major. Thanks to his number one ranking, he is the top seed in the men’s draw. “I will go to Paris with good feelings and confidence for the opportunity in Paris,” he said before the tournament.
He said pretty much the same thing the last two times he reached the Holy Grail of 21 Grand Slam competitions. But it was Nadal who set the historic record ahead of Djokovic and Federer when Nadal beat Medvedev in a surprising way at the Australian Open and jumped back into the vault of greatness.
Can Djokovic come out of the canteen and tie Nadal? If he doesn’t do so soon, he’ll start comparing himself to the equally talented, complex and embarrassing champion Serena Williams. Serena Williams is still one step behind Margaret Court’s record of 24 points.
Like Williams, who is retiring out of tour at the age of 40, Djokovic faces tremendous pressure to compete with his peers. It doesn’t get any easier. On Sunday he turned 35. His window is closing. The ability to demand consistent matches every season is getting narrower.
Think of everything he’s been through this year. Global outrage over his decision to avoid vaccination. A hangover from a disastrous defeat in the US Open final. A few months when he looked like he was copying his old self on the tennis court.
After Australia, he has not been able to compete in two big hardcourt tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami. Because the US wisely required foreign visitors to be vaccinated before entering Australia. Then came a play full of uneven, anxious play that he hadn’t seen from him in years. World rankings 123rd and 46th were defeated at the beginning of the round. Before loving his hometown fans, he struggled to sweep the Serbian Open before falling in the final. He fell from Madrid to 19-year-old Spanish fledgling Carlos Alcaraz.
Can Djokovic win his 21st title at the French Open? There was little hint that he would get the job done in Rome this month with his last major adjustment before Roland Garros.
For Djokovic in Rome, everything once again existed. Flexible, deep and consistent returns, the most tense moments were pickpockets. Djokovic did not lose any sets in this competition. He played the opening game 6-0, beating fourth-placed Stefano Scičipas in the final.
At a press conference, he looked back at Australia and the brutal aftermath, and said how the experience will not bring him down. Djokovic has promised to turn the jagged pain of being banned and the pressure of backlash to his advantage. “It will be the driving force for the next challenge.”
That attitude is as vintage Djokovic as his sickle downline backhand.
How he was hailed as a hero among anti-vaccine crowds is not mentioned because of his refusal, which is incomprehensible, given that the coronavirus has killed at least 6 million people worldwide. He swore he would step aside if he had to choose between getting vaccinated or continuing professional tennis.
His devotion to that position is foolish, but his resistance provides a window that makes Djokovic tick. Persistent stubbornness sets him apart from his movement, consistency, or dart-like accuracy.
He is a true believer on and off the court, and has long anchored himself to the wildest false claims of all self-help movements, from telepathy to the notion that thoughts of love can change the molecular structure of water.
Now you might think that the idea is pretty ridiculous. I will definitely do that. But for Djokovic, his obsession with the seemingly impossible worked in surprising ways.
We’ve seen it countless times on the biggest stage.
Remember his great escape against Federer. Wins after facing two match points against Federer’s serve at the 2010 and 2011 US Opens. In the 2019 Wimbledon Marathon final, Federer turned his back on him after the turf court master secured another match point.
I was there and the center court crowd was still screaming, “Federer! Federer! Federer!” ringing in my ears. But that’s not what Djokovic heard. He said he turned the rhythmic chant into something that mentally spurs him as the roar at the opponents soared like a storm after the match. “Nobak! Novak! Novak!”
Also remember the French Open 2021 victory over Nadal in the semi-finals. This is the most recent act in the duo’s 58-match competition. The Serbs came from behind in the second set against Tsitzipas to win the title.
The French Open is now underway again. Winning at Roland Garros is an intense journey as it exists in sports. Especially as athletes use a mix of power, touch, bounding topspin and athleticism in ways unimaginable not so long ago.
Age and clothes that churn your legs on tour add another challenge. Nadal, 35, is also battling serious foot and rib injuries that are rumored to be nearing retirement.
The pair will again try to beat Paris’ young stars. In particular, his gaze will be fixed on the endless teenage Elan and Alkaraz, who play with the wisdom and power of a veteran.
All three teams are bidding for the finals, with all three teams in the same class in the draw in Paris. Can Djokovic do that and get 21st place? I would not bet against a player who could unleash unshakable magic.