Can Novak Djokovic be invincible again?

For months and months this year, in the most important tennis tournaments, it seemed that Novak Djokovic was invincible, like he just co...


For months and months this year, in the most important tennis tournaments, it seemed that Novak Djokovic was invincible, like he just couldn’t be beaten.

With the biggest titles on the line, professional tennis threw everything he had at Djokovic for the first seven months of 2021. In Australia in February, he overcame a debilitating abdominal tear, blockages from Covid-19 and the hottest player in the game. In Paris in June, he sterilized the most dominant player a Grand Slam tournament has ever seen, then staged an epic comeback to win the Roland Garros title. At Wimbledon, he led some of the game’s best young players as if they were desperate children.

Arriving in Tokyo for the Olympics, he quickly became the toast of the athletes’ village, and the gold medal – maybe two of them – was just a formality.

Nenad Lalovic, a fellow Serb and member of the board of directors of the International Olympic Committee, took the honor of presiding over the medal ceremony, certain he would present gold to a man who has become a deity in their native country.

Djokovic’s first victim, Hugo Dellien of Bolivia, asked for Djokovic’s jersey as a souvenir and told him that just being on the pitch with him had been a dream come true. After the games, Djokovic headed to the weight room for nightly workouts. Can he lose? Rising Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina was called in after Djokovic dismantled him, 6-3, 6-1, in the round of 16 in Tokyo. “I don’t think so,” he said.

But invincibility in sport can be as fleeting as it is powerful. For Djokovic, who traveled to Tokyo to reclaim the fourth gem in his quest for a Golden Slam – the four Grand Slam titles and the Olympic gold medal in the same calendar year – the magic happened. dissipated in a shocking 11-game stretch that lasted around 45 minutes, as Germany’s Alexander Zverev came back from a touchdown and conquered the King.

An hour later, Djokovic was back on the pitch, missing out on easy shots on the sweltering night in a mixed doubles semi-final with Nina Stojanovic. They lost to a vastly inferior Russian duo. When it was over, he sniffed back tears and leaned on a teammate’s shoulder as he made his way to the locker room.

The next afternoon he threw his racket into the stands and hit it against the net post as he failed to find the answers against Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta in the medal match bronze.

Everything seemed so different from Djokovic, so no 2021. Djokovic has not played a competitive game since the Olympics and has remained largely silent, citing a need to rest and treat a sore shoulder. This has left everyone wondering which version of Djokovic will take the field this week at the US Open as he tries to become the first man to win a Grand Slam since Rod Laver did so in 1969.

“I can’t wait,” Djokovic said at a press conference on Friday. ” I am very motivated.

Making an argument against Djokovic is almost impossible. The US Open is played on hard courts, the surface on which Djokovic has won 12 of his 20 Grand Slam tournament titles. Djokovic’s main rivals throughout his career, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, have stepped down as they struggled with age and injury. Defending champion Dominic Thiem has also retired due to injury.

As in all Grand Slam tournaments, matches are best of three out of five sets, making upset less likely. At the Olympics, Zverev was on the verge of defeat and then got remarkably hot for 11 games, which was all he needed to win the game. Could he have maintained this level for another set? Maybe, but history suggests it would have been very difficult.

Djokovic is also likely to play several of his US Open games at night so he can be featured on prime-time telecast. He’s almost unbeatable under the lights, when the afternoon heat that may be his kryptonite has subsided.

John McEnroe, seven-time Grand Slam champion and ESPN commentator, has said the only person who can beat Djokovic is Djokovic. Last year, Djokovic lost his temper in the round of 16, accidentally hitting a ball in the throat of a linesman, resulting in a automatic disqualification.

“I think he’s ready for now,” McEnroe said of Djokovic on a conference call ahead of the tournament on Tuesday.

And yet, after Tokyo, the idea that no one can overthrow Djokovic on the biggest stages of sport is no longer absurd.

“For another player, it’s always good to see the vulnerability of the greatest of all time,” said Paul Annacone, former coach of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. “It’s reassuring. But in this case, it’s a very measured level of reassurance.

Invincibility is a rare commodity in tennis. There are so many matches and so many tournaments in so many countries, it is practically impossible not to lay the egg every now and then. Martina Navratilova probably came closest to it in 1983, when she played 87 games and lost only once. Steffi Graf won the Golden Slam in 1988, a campaign that included a scary 34-minute 6-0, 6-0 triumph in the Roland Garros final. Graf lost three games that year, but never when it mattered most.

As Djokovic begins his quest for perhaps the most sacred achievement in the game, Zverev seems to be his most likely nemesis, especially with the memory of Tokyo still fresh.

Djokovic knocked out three other next-gen stars in the Grand Slam finals earlier this year.

His final against Russian Daniil Medvedev in Australia quickly transformed into a three-tier clinic. TO Wimbledon, Italian Matteo Berrettini won the first set of the final but did not come close.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, the young Greek prospect, came closest to the surprise, taking a two-set lead in the French internationals final. He then lost his serve and his cool, early in the third set and never recovered.

Against Djokovic at the Olympics, Zverev demonstrated a rarely seen ability to incapacitate Djokovic’s most dangerous weapon – the biggest serve return in sports history – with his twisted explosions 130 miles away. time. As the finish line drew closer, he swayed even harder, unleashing punches with a freedom that had long eluded him in the most crucial moments.

Last week, Zverev beat Andrey Rublev of Russia in the final of the Western and Southern Open, winning in 58 minutes.

Like everyone else, Zverev knows Djokovic is a big favorite, but perhaps not invincible. Djokovic will enter the New York courts on relaxed legs that have not been taxed for nearly a month. Will it be cool or rusty?

“It’s definitely going to be an interesting US Open,” Zverev said after the West and South final. “I know where I am. I know how I play.

The losses in Tokyo led to Djokovic taking a break. He said he has no regrets about his trip to the Olympics, especially the opportunity to mingle and dine and stretch and celebrate with thousands of other athletes in the Olympic Village. After, however, he was exhausted, so he decided to skip the Western & Southern Open, which he had planned to play.

He said he could feel the pressure and expectations mounting and he expected fierce challenges from Medvedev and Zverev, but tried to tackle the challenges one ball at a time.

“There is a slight difference from what is at stake, but I don’t give it too much importance on a daily basis,” he said.

After nearly a month without a competition, Djokovic most likely put Tokyo in his rearview mirror, attributing the experience to the extreme heat and precariousness of the best two out of three format. But he might need a match or three to find his rhythm and regain that aura of inevitability he’s carried on the pitch all year round, a weapon that can be far more potent than drink specials. and the energy bars he packs in his tennis bag.

During her dominant run, Navratilova said, she could see in the eyes of her opponents before the first ball was hit that they knew how slim their chances were. The idea that the match might not go his way defied logic.

“Your best is better than theirs, your medium is better than theirs, so why would you lose?” ” she said.

Surprisingly, Djokovic has been at this level, or very close, twice before. In 2011 and 2015, he won three of the four Grand Slam tournaments and dominated his main rivals, Federer and Nadal. For long stretches, it seemed like he could never lose.

And then, finally, he did. Nothing lasts forever, in tennis or in life, even when it seems impossible that it doesn’t.

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