We do love a bit of record-breaking here at Sportside and, as if we hadn’t seen enough of it this sporting summer with the Olympics and Paralympics, many sporting eyes now turn to Novak Djokovic at the US Open this fortnight.
The Serbian can make history over the coming fortnight in New York, where victory would give him a record-breaking 21 majors and the Grand Slam, having already won the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon this year (which no one has achieved since Rod Laver in 1969).
And the 34-year-old world No 1 seems to be loving every minute of it.
“Obviously I know how big of an opportunity is in front of me here in New York, where historically I’ve played really well over the years,” he said ahead of the tournament. “It’s probably the most entertaining tennis court that we have. The crowd will be back in the stadium. I can’t wait. Honestly I’m very motivated to play my best tennis. But I have to hit one ball at a time, try to be in the moment, have a guiding star in a way, a dream to win a Slam here, which would obviously complete the calendar Slam.
“I’m hugely inspired and motivated by that, no doubt. But at the same time, I know how to balance things out mentally, with lots of expectations around. My participation here, without Rafa and Roger participating, I feel it. I know there are a lot of people who are going to be watching my matches and expecting me to do well and fight for a Slam.”
With long-time rivals Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer absent through injury (and with both looking unlikely to add to their 20 Grand Slam titles), Djokovic knows a place in the history books await, but he’s not discounting the challenge of the likes of Danii Medvedev, Alexander Zverev or Stefanos Tsitipas, to name but three of the ‘new guard’ that are going to have to fill the void left by Roger, Rafa (and Novak) when the time eventually comes.
“You still have tremendous quality tennis players that are right now on hot streaks, like Zverev, Medvedev [and] Tsitsipas. Those are the three top contenders I see for the title. But a Grand Slam is a Grand Slam. It’s a two-week-long event, best-of-five [sets]. Everyone wants to do well at the Grand Slams. Anything can really happen.
Djokovic’s one rare miss this season was at the Olympics in Japan, and he has not played since, but he insists he is now ready and raring to go at Flushing Meadows.
“I feel good on the court. I took a little bit of additional time off after the Olympics because I just felt exhausted in every sense after that long summer. Unfortunately I didn’t end up with a medal at the Olympics. It was a great experience of sharing the village and the dining room with 10-plus-thousand athletes. It’s a very unique experience that you remember forever. You take a lot of positives out of it, putting aside the tennis performance, just in general. I think you can learn a lot, you speak life, you speak sports. I really value that experience a lot.”
Djokovic has been in eight US Open finals and won it three times. The highest-ranked player in his quarter of the draw is Italian Matteo Berrettini who he beat in the WImbledon final this year and he says he feels he can play his best tennis in New York this week. “I’m very inspired to play my best tennis here,” he said.
“I don’t want to say it’s now or never for me because I think I’m going to have more opportunities in my life to win Slams. I don’t know if I’m going to be having more opportunities to win Calendar Slams. That’s why it’s a very unique opportunity. At the same time, I don’t need to put any additional pressure to what I already have.
“But I thrive under pressure, as well. I’ve done that many times in my career. Pressure is a privilege, it truly is. This is what you work for day-in, day-out, all your life, to put yourself in a unique position to win Grand Slams and to make history. At the end of the day, I’m a big tennis fan, a fan of history. I admire this sport. I love it. I have this chance, and I’m going to try to use it.”
As a sport, tennis might be worried that the imminent departure of Roger and Rafa from the scene might impact participation numbers but there seems to be no sign of a decline there just yet – in fact the International Tennis Federation (ITF) published some incredibly positive figures last week.
It said its Global Tennis Report showed a very positive outlook, despite the global coronavirus pandemic.
The 2021 report found there are more than 87 million players within the 41 nations that contributed to the data, an increase of 4.5 per cent compared with the 2019 report.
The ITF said positive growth has also been reported in the total number of tennis courts, clubs and coaches.
“Grassroots tennis is where it all begins, and our sport continues to prove its popularity and resilience despite the challenges of the past 18 months,” an ITF statement read.
A record-breaking victory for Djokovic in a couple of weeks will surely grow those numbers further.