Can Novak Djokovic emulate Rod Laver’s grand slam record?
Hours after beating Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final, Novak Djokovic was asked if he could complete the calendar year grand slam.
For some the question might have been premature, since three majors remain in what is an exceedingly long tennis season and not many have been able to get past the great Nadal at his beloved French Open — the next stop on the grand slam merry-go-round in late May.
But taking into consideration how the Serb demolished Nadal — traditionally his biggest rival — one can certainly understand why the query came.
“Well, I got to get Rod Laver in my team in order to achieve that,” Djokovic said, not unusually starting with a lighthearted response before getting down to the nitty gritty. “He’s the only one that has managed to do the impossible challenge, the ultimate challenge of tennis.
Laver indeed is the lone man in the Open Era to sweep to all four, exactly 50 years ago in 1969.
Symmetry for Djokovic?
When Djokovic eased past Nadal 6-3 6-2 6-3 to land a record seventh Australian Open title Sunday, he handed the world No. 2 his worst defeat in 25 finals at majors.
Never before had Nadal lost a grand slam final in straight sets.
Even if Nadal essentially said after his crushing reverse at Melbourne Park that he lacked a sufficient number of matches to topple the behemoth that is Djokovic following yet more injuries, it was the type of result that could linger in the brawny Mallorcan’s mind.
Djokovic owns the distinction of being only one of two players to oust Nadal at Roland Garros and that was in straight sets in 2015 so going 2-for-2 in 2019 isn’t farfetched.
Sure Nadal was in the midst of a slump but in the past — even if wobbling slightly — the clay in Paris always seemed to cure his ills.
Whether he does it or not, Djokovic has always been the most likely candidate of the Big Three to emulate Laver.
French Open obstacle
The lone year Federer claimed the French Open in 2009, he lost to Nadal months earlier in a gripping Australian Open final.
Nadal lost to Sweden’s Robin Soderling in Paris in 2009 — beset by knee troubles and personal issues — to open the door for Federer and has never won another Australian Open. After the French Open, then, a calendar year slam has always been an impossibility for the duo.
Djokovic meanwhile came very close to winning all four in 2015, triumphant thrice and landing in all four grand slam finals.
The one blemish came at Roland Garros after he seemingly did the hard part by taking out Nadal in the quarterfinals.
However, Djokovic would pay the price for dropping his guard against Andy Murray in the semifinals.
Leading by two sets, he was pegged back to a decider that needed to be completed the day before the final.
And history has shown that players who must play the day before a grand slam final usually fall short in the finale when their opponent benefits from the usual day off.
There were extenuating circumstances last year at Wimbledon, of course, when Djokovic finished off Nadal on the Saturday in a five-set classic.
Kevin Anderson had that day off before the final yet he was extended to 6 1/2 hours in the semifinals by his pal and fellow giant, John Isner.
“Obviously it’s just the beginning of the season,” said Djokovic, who was also commenting on his chances of winning four straight majors for a second time.
Right now he holds Wimbledon, the US Open and Australian Open.
“I know there’s a lot of tournaments to play before Roland Garros, so I have plenty of time to build my form slowly, obviously staying on a hard court first with big tournaments,” said Djokovic.
“I have to work on my game, my clay court game, a bit more, more specifically than I have in the last season. I need to play better than I have last season. I am already playing better. But I mean clay specifically in order to have a chance and shot at the title.
“The ultimate challenge there is to win against Nadal.
“Then you have (Dominic) Thiem and (Alexander) Zverev, Roger is probably going to play. You have a lot of great players that on clay can challenge me or anybody else,” he added, referring to the 2018 finalist, ‘Next Gen’ German and Federer, respectively.
Federer has not competed at the French Open since 2016.
Djokovic succumbed to little known Marco Cecchinato in last year’s French Open quarterfinals in four sets in a clash he could have won in four.
That loss coupled with the win over Nadal at Wimbledon were likely the two most important contests for him last year.
Losing to Cecchinato fired him up while overcoming Nadal restored belief after a slump and elbow surgery took its toll.
“It was a huge learning curve for me, just the whole process was very special,” said Djokovic. “I embraced the journey. I am very grateful to go through it. I would never change anything if I could turn back the time because things are just the way they should be.
“But yes 12 months ago it was highly unlikely I would be holding three slams. I just have to be conscious of that and understand that I’m blessed.”
Three and, potentially, counting. And if he does win in Paris, look out.