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Can Novak Djokovic recover to bring home the calendar-year Grand Slam?
The world No. 1's brutal ending at the Tokyo Olympics, where he finished with no medals, leaves major questions about his physical and mental states heading into his US Open preparation.
Published Aug 02, 2021
TC Live: Discussing Djokovic's semifinal defeats in Tokyo
The ice bags Novak Djokovic put on his neck did not help much. Nor did the thick black hose that pumped cool, conditioned air under Djokovic’s shirt, or those frenzied bursts of frustration that left the Serbian star’s dreams of completing a historic Golden Slam as comprehensively shattered as his racquets.
Djokovic had outsized ambitions at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, but he appears to have underestimated the degree of difficulty entailed. It’s a sign of hubris, a recurring theme that has had mixed consequences in the career of the 34-year old champion.
Who can forget the ill-conceived Adria Tour, or the sloppy launch of the Professional Tennis Players Association? Then again, who cannot admire the way Djokovic, once the third wheel in a cozy rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, has inserted himself into—and taken control of—the race to go down as the winningest male Grand Slam champion of them all.
Hubris. It’s the greatest ally—and enemy—of Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic’s epic fail in Tokyo could be attributed partly, maybe largely, to his surfeit of confidence and pride. It’s the only way to explain the decision, taken after the tennis event was underway, to enter the mixed doubles with Nina Stojanovic. By that time, it was clear that the event, played in a highly compressed time frame and in brutal heat, would amount to a death march. Yet instead of focusing on the singles, Djokovic experienced either a fit of patriotism or stirrings of greed at the prospect of winning two medals. Perhaps it was a little bit of both.
The top-ranked star seems to have miscalculated. The mixed event in the Olympics is no hit-and-giggle sideshow. With medals and the accolades they promise on offer, the event belongs to experienced doubles specialists and excellent singles players who lose early or stand little chance of making the podium in the main event.
Consequently, Djokovic found himself battling through a total of 16 sets over the course of seven matches in just four days. He sputtered and eventually stalled, taking three defeats in two days—the final one coming less than 24 hours after Alexander Zverev of Germany produced a stunning turnaround to upset Djokovic in the singles semifinals.
"I'm sorry to Nina for not being able to play, but my body just gave up,'' Djokovic told reporters after he withdrew from the mixed event in the wake of his loss to Pablo Carreno Busta in the bronze medal match. He added that he had “several” injuries and that he competed “. . .under medicines, unbelievable pain and exhaustion.''
Hubris. It’s the greatest ally—and enemy—of Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic has experienced an enormous amount of drama, much of it brought on by his willingness to assert himself and take command of his environment.
At the height of the Covid pandemic in the spring of 2020, Djokovic defiantly conceived and launched the four-event Adria Tour. He sought to provide playing and earning opportunities for players in eastern Europe, but his minions paid little heed to health protocols. The tour collapsed before the second of the four events was even completed due to a flurry of positive tests (Djokovic’s included) for Covid-19.
“We tried to do something with the right intentions,” Djokovic told the New York Times after the tour blew up. Nobody questioned his motivation, just his judgment.
In the summer of 2020, Djokovic introduced the Professional Tennis Players Association, an aggressive new players’ rights group. A co-founder (with Canadian pro Vasek Pospisil) of the PTPA, the men were criticized for poor timing, sowing discord at a delicate time due to the pandemic lockdowns. Their failure to reach out and include women in their plans also angered many WTA members and their supporters.
Djokovic has had smoother sailing in his push to surpass the achievements of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and to earn an equal measure of the respect accorded his great rivals. The three men are currently tied with 20 major singles titles apiece, but 2021 has shaped up as the year in which Djokovic exerts his dominion. The winner of the first three Grand Slams events of the year, Djokovic had the mission well in hand heading into Tokyo.
A rare calendar-year Grand Slam, the first by a man since Rod Laver accomplished the last one just over 50 years ago, remains in play for Djokovic. But his failures in Tokyo lead you to wonder how they will impact him, mentally as well as physically, as the US Open approaches (start date: Aug. 30). He carried pains—painful memories—instead of medals home from Tokyo.
Djokovic told reporters after losing the bronze medal match to Spain’s Pablo Carreño Busta that he hoped the punishment he absorbed in Tokyo would not “create a problem” for his effort in New York. But he cautioned, "That's something that I'm not sure about right now.''
Analysts and pundits also weren’t sure how the spectacular, unexpected collapse of Djokovic’s Olympic ambitions would impact his immediate future.
“Honestly, I don’t know what I think now,” NBC’s Olympics tennis analyst Brad Gilbert wrote in a text. “This was a rough two days for him definitely. He will take a few weeks off to recharge.”