As he tried to make more history at Wimbledon on Sunday, Novak Djokovic spoke about the “constant battle” to stay in the present. But, after he clinched a record-equalling 20th Grand Slam title with victory over Matteo Berrettini, it’s impossible not to look to the future.
Djokovic’s third major victory of the year means that he is now level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the all-time standings in the men's draw. His remarkable form and focus suggests that it won’t be long before he wins his 21st – and then it will only be Margaret Court, Serena Williams and Steffi Graf that have won more in the history of the game.
“Obviously it's all coming together,” said Djokovic after beating Berrettini. “I feel like in the last couple of years for me age is just a number. I've said that before. I don't feel that I'm old or anything like that.
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“Obviously things are a bit different and you have to adjust and adapt to your phases you go through in your career. But I feel like I'm probably the most complete that I've been as a player right now in my entire career.”
If this is the peak of Djokovic’s career, then he is making the most of it. While Federer and Nadal have both slowed down in terms of Grand Slam wins over the last five years, Djokovic has sped up. He has won four of the last six majors – losing in the final and being disqualified in the fourth round in the other two – and is on course for a historic Golden Slam this year, if he decides to play the Olympics. Time will catch up with him at some point, but how many more will he have won by then?
“He's not going to stop. He just doesn't want to stop,” said Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic on Sunday.
“He is better and better. He's every day better competing. He's an unbelievable competitor, unbelievable. Something new every day. Even when he's not playing the best tennis, he's winning. So imagine when he's playing the best tennis, is impossible to beat him.
“For me Novak is the best ever. He's writing history. He's going to do it in US Open. I strongly believe he's going to do it, he's going to win all four in one year.”
Only five players in history have won all four Grand Slams in the same year, and the last to do it was Steffi Graf in 1988. The only men to achieve the feat are Don Budge (in 1938) and Rod Laver (in 1962 and 1969). The pressure on Djokovic at the US Open when he tries to complete the set for the year will be immense. He has only won the tournament once in the last five years – exiting in the fourth round on the last two occasions – and will have so much at stake, just as he did at Wimbledon, where he acknowledged the significance of the occasion did cross his mind.
“I did feel before the semis and also finals today slightly different emotion in terms of expectations, the tension build-up that I have maybe in the past because history is on the line, I'm aware of it, even though I was trying not to think about it too much, trying to approach this match as any other match.
“Sometimes the things are so big off the court that it's hard to avoid them in a way. You learn how to deal with them. You learn how to accept the circumstances that you're going through, try to transform that into the fuel that you need on the court.”
If Djokovic handles the situation as well as he did at Wimbledon it’s difficult to see who will stop him in New York. Rafael Nadal could be his biggest rival and it’s hard not to imagine that he will be especially determined to prevent Djokovic winning his 21st Grand Slam title, despite
. Federer may also be a contender, while Stefanos Tstisipas, Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev could lead the charge of the younger generation after early exits at Wimbledon.
But Djokovic has shown his ability this year to handle all manner of situations. He came through difficult moments at the Australian Open and French Open, while at Wimbledon he was almost untouchable despite the pressure on his shoulders, only dropping two sets all tournament - in his first match and the final.
“He's like in the movies,” said Ivanisevic. “You have to kill the guy 27 times and still he gets up and you have to kill him again and he gets up, he gets up. He just, you can't. This is great. I'm proud to be there and to witness that, to be part of that that is going to make history, which I strongly believe he will do.”
It should not be forgotten that Djokovic is dominating in a year when Covid-19 restrictions are starting to wear some players down. Denis Shapovalov said after losing to Djokovic in the semi-finals that he is “starting to go” mentally as he explained his decision not to play at the Olympics. “It's not easy mentally for anybody…I'm exhausted, not just from the tournament, but from this whole situation, the restrictions. We can't leave. I mean, it's not easy for anyone.” Djokovic has also spoken about the difficulties of being on the tour this year, but over the last month he has won two Grand Slam titles and has elevated himself to a level that could make him the player to beat for sometime yet.
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