Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon looks ahead at next week’s US Open.
You can already hear the noise. The murmur. The reasoning and excuses.
As we get closer and closer to the start of the 2021 US Open, and as Novak Djokovic looks to complete the calendar-year Grand Slam as well as becoming the Grand Slam titles career leader in men’s tennis history; as his two chief rivals on paper announced that they wouldn’t compete at the event after spending the better part of this 2021 season battling injuries and inconsistent play; as all this was and is happening, it was all building to a crescendo. Gauntlets have been thrown and lines in the sand have been drawn. Both sides of the divide have unearthed their respective axe of war and are ready to fight based on the outcome of this coming Grand Slam.
What does this all mean exactly?
Pro-Djokovic fans will see a triumph as indisputable proof that their favourite is the greatest champion in men’s history, and a defeat as a mere blip on the radar and nothing that an Australian Open title next year can’t fix. Meanwhile, non-Djokovic fans will say that if he wins a 21st Grand Slam it should come with an asterisk because of who he will (and will not) have had to compete against. And if Djokovic can’t close the deal in Flushing Meadows against that draw, well then just how timeless and great is he really?
Is there a middle ground maybe?
Well sure. The reality is that if we’re trying to look objectively at what Djokovic has accomplished this season, we can see some truth behind what both sides are saying.
On the one hand, it is true that Djokovic has been fortunate to win in some instances. He almost fumbled the Roland-Garros final against Stefanos Tsitsipas despite having accomplished the impossible in the semifinal. Then at Wimbledon, he was probably the worse player against Denis Shapovalov but still managed to eke out the win. Djokovic’s run in 2021 hasn’t been without pitfalls or near pitfalls—just look at what happened this summer at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics—but he’s pulled through when it’s counted the most. At this point, the Serb is likely to win all 4 Grand Slam titles in the same year and he won’t have had to worry about his two chief rivals at three of the events.
On the other hand, would it have really have made a difference?
Murray ?? + Nadal ?? + Federer ??
Grand Slams – 18
Tour Finals – 2
Big Titles – 59 ?
Year End No.1 – 4
Weeks as No.1 – 199
Grand Slams – 19 ?
Tour Finals – 4 ?
Big Titles – 54
Year End No.1 – 6 ?
Weeks as No.1 – 334 ? pic.twitter.com/ojpeFrW5CJ
— Kanav (@IdemoDjoko) August 22, 2021
As you can see from the tweet above, neither Rafael Nadal nor Roger Federer have been much of a menace to Djokovic for about a decade now. Federer, believe it or not, hasn’t beaten Djokovic at a Grand Slam since 2012 and Nadal hasn’t so much as won a set on hard courts against him since 2013. More and more the best kept secret of the ATP is that if Djokovic has rivals on hard courts, they’re not Nadal nor Federer.
So sure, maybe you want to deduct some merit points. But it would be foolish. If he wins the US Open, Djokovic could accomplish something that’s only been done six times in history—and never since Steffi Graf in 1988. Surely he isn’t the only one who’s had it “easy” in the last 30+ seasons…but why has no one else done it?
What does it mean for the title of goat?
Should the Serb win the US Open title next month, he would take sole possession of first place for the most Grand Slam titles in men’s tennis history. It would, for all intents and purposes, end any and all debate on who the greatest men’s player. He already had just about every mark in history; now he would also have the Grand Slams mark. Just about the only things left for Djokovic would be an Olympic medal, which is whatever, and the overall singles titles, which he should grab before long if he keeps playing another few seasons.
Before long, Djokovic will have rendered moot any notion of a debate as to who is the greatest men’s player in history. So fans of Nadal and Federer will need to retort to mental gymnastics to crown their king as top dog. Like when that time someone asked Daniil Medvedev at a press conference who deserved the goat title “regardless of numbers.” Or like when this Nadal fan tried to rationalize away on Twitter the three career losses their favourite has suffered at the French Open.
If you say something stupid I’ll clown you. And then you’ll block me. Lol foh. pic.twitter.com/C1Ds826oJg
— CBG (@RealCBG) August 20, 2021
(Please note that we’re including the image of this tweet above because when we called out their logic, this Twitter user blocked us. In other words: whatever you do in life, don’t be like this Twitter user.)
Of course, we could all be discussing for naught. We remember the 2020 edition of the US Open where Djokovic had things set up easily for him. He was for sure winning the title, and we all knew it.
But he didn’t.