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The Grand Slam Hunt

• Posted in Tennis • By JoeBaker

For many people, Roger Federer will always go down as the greatest man to take to a tennis court - both for his artistry with a racquet and based on the hard statistics. This belief was only emboldened when the seemingly insurmountable 18 Grand Slams was extended to 20 after wins in Melbourne and at Wimbledon last year.

The assumption that Federer’s Slam haul will never be beaten is being eroded. First Rafael Nadal rediscovered his old zest, overcoming the injuries that had threatened to end his career by winning the last two French Opens and cantering to the 2017 US Open, taking his tally to 17 and counting. And now a second coming has arrived for another master and one perhaps less appreciated than his aforementioned big rivals – Novak Djokovic.

The question is this – when the dust settles and the glittering careers of these three players end, could it be Djokovic who ends up being on top of the Slam stakes?

This season has been all about the Serbian, a comeback year in which he has won Wimbledon and in New York, his 13th and 14th Majors and first in over two years. He also triumphed at the Cincinnati Masters in August, which saw him become the first player to win all nine Masters 1000 tournaments, and a record 4th in Shanghai. In the process of earning yet another title in China he won his 26th straight set and 18th consecutive match since losing the Rogers Cup Final in Canada over the summer. Since defeat to Britain’s Kyle Edmund in the 2nd round of the Madrid Open in May, he won 39 out of 43 matches. As such, has has now replaced Nadal as the world number one, becoming the first since Marat Safin to come from outisde the top 20 take take the top spot. 

This return to form can make it easy to forget where Djokovic has come from, after suffering a difficult second half of 2016 and a terrible 2017 which was, like his fellow 31-year-old Andy Murray, savaged by injury. An elbow problem that had been plaguing him was finally operated on and, after a lengthy spell out, to say he looked rusty would be an understatement. There was no guarantee that someone even as physically remarkable as Djokovic was going to ever be the same again, particularly as he is no longer a spring chicken of the game. Yet whilst Murray is still trying to get his match fitness and sharpness back, his old rival has come back harder than anyone expected. He once again looks like the fittest player on the Tour and is playing some of the best tennis of his career.

What’s more, is there anyone right now who can compete on different surfaces as well as him? Whilst Nadal has won the career Grand Slam like Djokovic, he has never really looked comfortable on grass and realistically it is at Roland Garros where his hopes of further Slams lie. It’s now annual news hearing that Federer will skip the clay court season to save himself for the grass and Murray has never looked truly happy on the red stuff. At present, Djokovic goes into every tournament, no matter the surface, as one of the favourites. You can’t say the same about anyone else on the Tour.

And that brings us to the reason why the man with 72 career titles to date could end up catching up with Federer’s Slam record – the next generation to challenge the top, top players just hasn’t materialised yet. The likes of Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori have disappointingly failed to kick on from their early promise, whilst Marin Cilic, despite being perhaps the best of the rest, isn’t able to consistently play at the stratospheric level required to beat the Serb when it matters most. There are big hopes for the talented duo of German Alexander Zverev and his Austrian neighbour Dominic Theim, yet you suspect it could still be at least another season before they are realistically at Djokovic’s level.

A major cause of previous the doubts surrounding Djokovic came from the mental weaknesses slipping into his game. The obduracy and fight had for a period during 2016, before surgery, disappeared. Who can forget the tears after getting dumped out early at the Rio Olympics, so soon after the breakdown at Wimbledon that saw him knocked out as defending Champion before the second week of the Championship had even begun? Issues behind the scenes, resulting in numerous changes to his support team, also cannot have helped. Yet all of this has seemingly been sorted, with his old stalwart and sounding board Marián Vajda back as his head coach. The aura on the court has well and truly returned.

The timing of his return to form from the wilderness has been impeccable. With Murray yet to re-establish himself, the uncertainty about how much longer Nadal has in the tank due to those previous well documented injury issues and the news that Federer has been carrying injuries since January, Djokovic could feasibly soon be out on his own. If he wins the ATP World Tour Finals in London in November and carries his form and confidence into the new season, don’t be surprised if an incredible 7th Australian Open title arrives, taking him beyond Pete Sampras in the Slam record books. If Djokovic goes on an extended tear through the big tournaments like he did in 2011, if he stays clear of injury and if his mind does not go wandering, Federer will be looking nervously over his shoulder – if he’s not already.

We thought Djokovic would never match that breakthrough year of 2011, when he looked invincible. Factoring in the issues he has overcome to not just get back to form but reach the very top again, 2018 is surely on a par. A clean sweep of Slams in 2019 would put Djokovic just two behind Federer. Is it time we started talking about him as the greatest of all time?

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