As if Novak Djokovic’s calendar Slam bid needed even more intrigue. Already there were questions about how he will recover from his painful exit at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in time to go again in New York. Now, with the world No 1 deciding to not play any lead-up events before the final Grand Slam of the year, there is another talking point.
Djokovic said the reason for pulling out of the Western & Southern Open was that he is “taking a bit longer to recover and recuperate” after a “taxing” season. Djokovic, who has won the first three majors of the year and is bidding to become the first man to complete the calendar-year Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969, pulled out of the mixed doubles bronze medal match at the Olympics due to a shoulder injury. He also said: “I am dealing with injuries. Not one, more than one… I have played under medications and abnormal pain and exhaustion.”
Some of the exhaustion was Djokovic’s own doing. By opting to compete in the mixed doubles as well as the singles he gave himself even more matches to play in hot and humid conditions. In the end he played 16 sets over just four days, with his ambitions for gold coming crashing down with three defeats in two days. It appears pride came before the fall. Djokovic’s Serbia team were all against him playing mixed doubles while his father, Srdjan, was against him going to the Games at all. Now Djokovic not only has the pain of his injuries to get over, but the pain of missing out on gold, along with the painful memories of his US Open disqualification from last year.
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It was hard not to think of New York when Djokovic threw his racquet into the stands in Tokyo during his bronze-medal defeat to Pablo Carreno Busta and then later smashed it against the net in frustration. Is it something about Carreno Busta that brings this out in Djokovic? He was the same opponent that was left in “shock” when the world No 1 was kicked out of the US Open last summer for hitting the ball towards a line judge in frustration. Djokovic said after that incident that he needed to turn it into a “lesson for growth and evolution as a player and human being”, but in Japan there was less remorse. "It was an emotional outburst and it happens. You're tense on the court, in the heat of the battle. It's not the first time and it's not the last time probably. It's not nice, of course, but it's part of, I guess, who I am. I don't like doing these things, I'm sorry for sending this kind of message, but we're all human beings and sometimes it's hard to control."
Knowing that he had missed out on gold, and his chance for a Golden Slam, probably played a part in Djokovic losing his cool. Perhaps a break is just what he needed.
But will it provide the ideal preparation ahead of the US Open? This will be only the second time in his career that Djokovic has missed both tournaments in the Canada-Cincinnati double. And on the three occasions that he has won the US Open – his least successful Slam outside of the French Open - he has played in both Canada and Cincinnati beforehand.
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Not that Djokovic will be short of match practice. He has played plenty over the last few months and added even more court time in Tokyo by competing in two events. He has also won majors before without competing in lead-up events, most notably Wimbledon, which he has rarely preceded by playing another grass-court tournament. Along with recovering from injury he said he is going to use the next two weeks to “spend more time with family”, which is exactly what he said earlier this year when he decided to pull out of the Miami Open; a decision that didn’t work out too bad for him.
But it will be fascinating to see his physical and mental state when he does return. Clearly he was emotionally hurt by what happened in Tokyo and not being able to win any medals at all for Serbia. Will he come back with a vengeance in New York? Or will there be a hangover? He has already suffered his fair share of heartbreak in New York, losing five of eight finals, and he may get even less support than usual from a full capacity crowd after his disqualification last year. But he said in Tokyo that he expects the disappointment of missing out on gold to fuel his bid for a fourth major this year.
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“I’ve had some heart-breaking losses at the Olympic Games and some big tournaments in my career. I know that those losses have usually made me stronger in every aspect. I know that I will bounce back. I gave it all, whatever I had left in the tank, which was not so much.”
Despite missing out on a gold medal, Djokovic is still aiming for history in New York. Only five players have won the calendar Grand Slam and if Djokovic achieves it he will also overtake Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the all-time major standings on 21. There was always going to be immense pressure whatever happened in Tokyo, but going in cold adds another dimension. Is there a chance he could be caught out if he gets a tough draw in the opening week? Going back to best-of-five sets certainly favours Djokovic, whose five defeats in 2021 have all come in three-set matches, and a break may come at an ideal time after a busy couple of months.
Djokovic is not the only player heading into the US Open with some uncertainty. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams are also not playing in Cincinnati as they look to get back to full fitness. Federer and Williams haven’t played since Wimbledon while Nadal played two matches at the Citi Open in Washington DC but is battling a foot problem. It would not be a surprise if at least one of the trio did not play in New York. If Nadal and Federer are absent then it will down to one of the next-Gen to stop Djokovic’s bid for history.
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