Opinion: Novak Djokovic should skip Olympics and Golden Slam and focus on another Grand Slam at US Open
Novak Djokovic is bidding to become the first man to win the Golden Slam, but is it wise to play the Olympics? Or should he focus his attentions on the US Open? The world No 1 is currently undecided on playing in Tokyo but several high-profile players have opted not to compete, including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams.
Novak Djokovic has history in his sights. He is aiming to become the first man ever to win the Golden Slam – all four Grand Slams and Olympic gold in the same year. The only other player to achieve the feat is Steffi Graf in 1988. With three Grand Slams already won in 2021, Djokovic needs to win just two more tournaments over the next two months to do something none of his rivals or his peers have ever achieved.
But would he be wise to settle for four, rather than five, and skip the Olympics?
Djokovic said after winning Wimbledon that he is unsure about playing in Tokyo due to the decision over banning spectators and the strict restrictions on athletes. A month earlier, after winning the French Open, his coach Marian Vajda had said the plan was to try and win the Golden Slam.
“Obviously his goal and our goal is to win the Olympics and then win the Grand Slam. That would be the absolutely top of this year…overall he's set up for this year. His priority is really set up like Wimbledon, Olympics, and US Open. I think that says all.”
But Djokovic seems to be having second thoughts – and he is not the first to do so. A number of players have opted not to compete, including Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Nick Kyrgios. Their reasons are varied, but the lack of fans and the tight Covid-19 restrictions have played a key part in players deciding to skip the Olympics. Denis Shapovalov probably spoke for a few players when he said he was “exhausted” after the first half of the season.
“It was a lot to do with the restrictions,” he said about not playing for Canada at the Olympics. “Being in the bubble again, this whole situation…Mentally I'm starting to go. It's not easy mentally for anybody.”
Djokovic has also spoken about the mental exertions of playing on the tour, but so far he hasn’t looked worn down on the court. He’s won 34 out of 37 matches in 2021 and is the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the first three majors of the year. If he’s still undecided over Tokyo it’s because he has the chance to chase history. This could also be his last chance to win an Olympic gold, which has so far alluded him. In 2008 he won singles bronze but in 2012 came fourth and in 2016 suffered a painful loss to Juan Martin del Potro in the first round. Djokovic has said that it is “one of his dreams” to win gold, and the number of withdrawals would only increase his chances of victory.
However, would Olympic gold be more important than winning the US Open and securing all four majors this year? That is not a feat as rare as the Golden Slam, but has only been achieved six times (by five different players), with Laver the last man to do it in 1969. And could playing in the Olympics hurt Djokovic’s chances of victory in New York?
There’s an argument that it could be seen as the start of the hard court season and will act as more preparation for the US Open. However, it’s a quick turnaround after Wimbledon – just two weeks from the final to the start of the Olympic tennis event – and then a quick turnaround into the US swing. The gold medal match is set to take place on August 1, eight days before the first Masters event of the summer in Toronto. The Western & Southern Open, another Masters event, starts on August 15, then there’s only the Winston-Salem Open, an ATP 250, before the US Open on August 30.
Not only is there a lot of travelling involved, but the restrictions and limits on what players can do while at the Games could be mentally draining. Djokovic has expressed his surprise that the bubble restrictions in the Athletes’ Village could mean he wouldn’t be allowed to watch other events or take along key members of his team such as his racket stringer. There will also be regular testing for Covid-19, limited opportunity to socialise and quarantine time on arrival. It's hard not to imagine that, win or lose, Djokovic would be drained by the experience of playing in Tokyo.
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Former world No 4 Pat Cash thinks Djokovic should prioritise the US Open over the Olympics.
“His goal is now to try and win all four Grand Slams in the calendar year,” he told L'Equipe. “It’s not easy to do, but I really do think it’s in his sights and that has got to be his priority. It’s the absolute peak of our sport to win all four Grand Slams.”
It's a huge decision for Djokovic and potentially a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win the Golden Slam. However, is going for it all the smart move or not?