Updated: July 31, 2021 7:05:39 am
It was after the Wimbledon semifinal earlier this month, on court, when television presenter Rishi Persad started to list a few statistics. With each word Novak Djokovic held a thoughtful smile on his face, and laughed when Persad finished his sentence. The Serb loves these stats. The most telling one now describes him as the joint record holder for most Grand Slam singles titles, 20. But Djokovic’s hungry for more, he never shies away from admitting it.
But there will be no Golden Slam. Djokovic came to Tokyo to take a big step towards achieving what only Steffi Graf has done, in 1988. After becoming the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to win the first three Grand Slams of the year with the US Open to come, he was on course to add the Olympic gold medal to the four major titles in the same year.
However, it all came tumbling down, rather dramatically, after German Alexander Zverev found a surge of inspiration to win 10 of the last 11 games to prevail 1-6, 6-3, 6-1. To be fair, it wasn’t a case of Djokovic folding, rather it was Zverev who raised his game and started to utilise the pace from the fast Ariake Tennis Park Centre Court.
Granted, the Olympic title is arguably not the most coveted accolade in the sport – though it has picked up in significance since Beijing 2008. But not winning it would have hurt the 34-year-old Serb nonetheless.
No gold yet
Among the Big Three in tennis, they’ve all won the four Slams and the Davis Cup. Rafael Nadal has never won the ATP Tour Finals. Federer has never won the Italian and Monte Carlo Masters. What they have won, something that Djokovic hasn’t, is an Olympic gold in some capacity (Nadal won the singles title in 2008 and Federer paired with Stan Wawrinka to win gold in Beijing). The Serb won bronze in Beijing, till date his only Olympic medal. He’ll be competing for another bronze against Pablo Carreno Busta on Saturday.
When Djokovic travelled to Tokyo, he was easily the man to beat. He had lost just three matches this year prior to Friday, but none at a big event. Apart from Naomi Osaka, he was probably the biggest tennis name present in Tokyo. And a quick scan of social media posts show that he was the one sportsperson athletes from other sports wanted to capture a cherished polaroid moment with. He even posed with the Belgian gymnastics team in a training area with a rendition of his trademark on-court split. And there were videos resurfacing online from 2019, when Djokovic last travelled to Tokyo, of him sumo wrestling. It was all smiles off court.
On it, he was business. He ticked off Brazil’s Marcelo Melo by hitting him with a close-range – and entirely avoidable – smash during their first-round mixed doubles match. He was quick to raise his hand in apology, but it seemed more out of formality than sincerity. And there was nothing wrong in it either – it was an entirely legal shot. Djokovic wasn’t in Tokyo to make friends. He wanted to win gold.
But it just so happened that a close friend off-court turned out to be the one to end that quest. With a backhand winner, Zverev ended Djokovic’s hopes of a Golden Slam in singles.
Later in the day, the Serb suffered more disappointment in mixed doubles, where he and Nina Stojanovic lost their semi-final to Elena Vesnina and Aslan Karatsev. Djokovic can hope for nothing more than bronze there too.
There still may be a smile with a US Open title to complete the Calendar Slam. But there won’t be a Golden Slam. No golden smile.