Novak Djokovic started the day with two opportunities to win gold at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, he finished it with none, and questions about whether he should only ever have gone for one.
The world No 1 saw his bid to become the first man to win the Golden Slam – all four Grand Slams and an Olympic singles gold in the same year – ended in stunning fashion in the semi-finals by Alexander Zverev. Djokovic looked to be on top as he led by a set and a break, but lost a dizzying 10 games in a row as Zverev secured his place in the final against Karen Khachanov. Djokovic could still win bronze, as he did in Beijing in 2008, and could add another bronze in the mixed doubles with Nina Stojanovic.
Neither will fill the hole left by another missed shot at singles gold. Even a mixed doubles gold would not have done so. Which raises the question: why play the event in the first place?
Exclusive: Djokovic is the one to beat in 2023, says Norrie
Even Serbia’s Olympic team coach, Viktor Troicki, doesn’t have an answer.
“I was against it. The whole team was against it,” he told Associated Press after Djokovic reached the semi-finals in both events on Thursday.
Zverev in floods of tears after stunning Djokovic to reach Olympic final
“It was just him. He wanted to play. I thought he had enough of tennis the last months. Really, he played so much.”
Before Djokovic confirmed his participation at the Games one of the big questions was whether it would be too much for him to take on. By winning the French Open and Wimbledon, Djokovic had played much more tennis than all of his rivals over the last two months. And with only a two-week gap from the Wimbledon final to the start of the Olympic tennis event, was there a chance he could jeopardise his opportunity to win the US Open – which starts in a month – by playing in Tokyo and adding to any fatigue?
“Everyone was thinking about the singles,” reflected Troicki. “When he said he wanted to play mixed, I was like, ‘OK, (if) it means that much to him and he wants to prove that he’s ready and in the mixed matches he’s giving everything, he’s 100% focused on going all the way, then OK.”
Did Djokovic really feel like he had something to prove?
He certainly looked like a man on a mission before facing Zverev. He hadn’t dropped a set in his previous three matches and his performance against Kei Nishikori in the quarter-finals was a masterclass. “My level of tennis is getting better and better," said Djokovic after the 6-2 6-0 win. "I've done that many, many times in my career: I know that I'm the kind of player that the further the tournament goes, the better I'm feeling on the court.”
Djokovic looked to be heading for another straight-sets win against Zverev, but the way the match fell away from him has to raise questions about his physical level. He has so often been described as “super-human”, but two matches a day – usually playing mixed doubles two or three hours after finishing singles – in hot and humid conditions is a tough challenge. The extreme heat in Tokyo saw Spain’s Paula Badosa retire from her quarter-final match and leave the court in a wheelchair, while Daniil Medvedev warned the umpire that it was so bad that he could “die”.
“I can finish the match but I can die. If I die, are you going to be responsible?” he said during his three-set win over Fabio Fognini.
That Djokovic enjoyed relatively serene progress through his singles matches undoubtedly helped him more than others, but even he found it challenging. “Obviously it’s the same for everyone and it’s something we’ve known coming into Tokyo,” he said after his first-round win. “We expected that the conditions were going to be very tough, but before you come here and experience that you don’t really know how difficult it is.
Mischa Zverev can't control emotions after brother Alexander stuns Djokovic
“I actually spoke to a couple of guys in the locker room and all of them said this is the toughest that they have experienced day to day.”
Djokovic helped lead the call for organisers to schedule matches later in the day when the weather was slightly cooler, yet should he also not have reconsidered his decision to play mixed doubles for the first time at the Olympics? Perhaps if he had either of his personal coaches, Marian Vajda or Goran Ivanisevic, with him in Tokyo then the outcome would have been different.
Instead Djokovic might be left with some regret, but also the need to quickly look forward to the US swing and his next shot at history. While the Golden Slam has eluded him, he can still become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four Grand Slams in the same year. If he won the US Open he would also move ahead of Federer and Rafael Nadal in the all-time Grand Slam standings with 21.
“Already now, it’s obvious that he’s the greatest in our sport,” said Troicki before Djokovic’s semi-final defeat. “The greatest ever to play and to achieve so many records. They’re both great champions, both Rafa and Roger, and I admire what they’ve done. But really Novak has (reached) new heights and new records and he’s for sure not going to stop here. He’s going to prove that he’s the best-ever player.”
There’s that word again: prove. How much more does Djokovic really have left to prove? Would another two Grand Slams – potentially putting him out of reach of Federer and Nadal – prove that he is the Greatest Of All Time? Would two gold medals have proved much more than just winning the coveted singles gold?
It would be fascinating to hear Djokovic’s reasons for deciding to play mixed doubles. He described it as “fun” earlier in the event while Troicki joked that “he’s looking for a harder challenge”.
But perhaps the challenge proved harder than even Djokovic expected.
Watch every unmissable moment live from Tokyo 2020 across Eurosport, the Eurosport app and discovery+. Download the Eurosport app for iOS and Android now.
'He's still the best' - Djokovic 'deserves to be favourite' for Aus Open says McNamee
Diriyah Tennis Cup: What is the schedule, who is playing, what is the format
Share this article