Despite a somewhat patchy finish to his season in 2020, there’s no doubt Novak Djokovic flew into Melbourne to open his 2021 season the world’s best player, the prohibitive favourite to win at least three of the four majors, and potentially on the cusp of striking the fatal blow in the seemingly deadlocked ‘greatest of all time’ debate with his two contemporaries; Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. While some will still argue a case for the other two, it’s undeniable that the 34-year-old Serb made a massive statement with his results this year, pulling away from his peers in several important statistical categories, drawing level in the one that many use as the defining factor and coming agonizingly close to achieving an unthinkable feat, one that hasn’t been done in over half a century.
It feels pronounced but ultimately necessary to begin analyzing Djokovic’s year by acknowledging the near-achievement that would have defined his already incredible career; the Calendar Grand Slam. The first three legs of his quest to accomplish what hasn’t been done since Rod Laver in 1969 were all remarkable in their own way.
His ability to fight through the pain of an abdominal tear and dismantle the meteorically rising Daniil Medvedev in the final at the Australian Open (his 9th title down under). Overcoming maybe his greatest foe in Rafael Nadal, on what is essentially his home ground in Roland Garros in an instant classic four-set semi-final, and then just two days later regrouping and digging his way out of a two-set hole against a man over a decade his junior against Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final (winning just his second French Open crown and becoming the first man in the Open Era to achieve the Double Career Slam, claiming all four majors at least twice). The way he made his march to a 6th Wimbledon title look like a complete non-event, dropping just two sets total on route to the win and finally drawing level with Nadal and Federer on 20 major titles in the process.
And after all that, he still mustered the physical and mental energy to claw his way to the US Open final, defeating a red hot Alexander Zverev in a three and a half hour war in the semis, before finally succumbing to his new rival Medvedev in the final. What Novak Djokovic accomplished at the major tournaments this year was nothing short of legendary, so much so it might go down as his career-defining calendar year in a career chalked full of them. Oh, and he also threw in a Paris Masters title at the end to seal his record-breaking 7th year-end number one ranking, you know, just for good measure.
Other than the heartbreaker mentioned above of a loss in the US Open final where Medvedev pretty comfortably defeated him, the only other notable on-court setback was a disappointing three-set defeat to Zverev in the Tokyo Olympics semi-finals, which might put to bed Djokovic’s dreams of ever claiming Olympic gold, a rare empty space in his ridiculously stacked list of accolades. Other than that, most of the downs for Djokovic popped up in off-court issues, most notably a reasonably embarrassing back-and-forth with Victorian Premier Dan Andrews, who slapped down his hopeless, and frankly unreasonable and self-serving, attempt to advocate for loosened quarantine restrictions for the traveling players before the Australian Open.
The Medvedev loss was a tough one for us all to wrap our heads around at the moment, in that it was both inconceivable and yet predictable at the same time. Djokovic had worked himself to the bone all year. He was suffering from the physical and particularly mental toil of what he was attempting to accomplish. Medvedev had barely been forced out of first gear in his run to the final, motivated by his quest for a first major title. Yet after repeatedly surviving perilous mid-match score lines all year round, bizarrely surrendering the first and/or second set in best-of-five play over and over and over only to come back every time and make it look easy in the end, made, it began to feel as though Djokovic was practically indestructible by that point.
In hindsight, the straight-sets result in Medvedev’s favour really should’ve been anticipated as a real possibility. The fact that it wasn’t is a testament to the unprecedented combination of ability, fitness, and maybe most of all, the mental toughness that Djokovic displayed in 2021.
The other notable quirk in Djokovic’s 2021 resume has been just how infrequently we’ve seen him on a tennis court this year. Except for a handful of borderline cameo appearances on clay before the French Open, Djokovic opted out of the vast majority of the calendar, appearing in just ten singles draws total on tour and only three of the nine Masters tournaments. The prevailing logic used to explain his absence throughout the year has been his prioritization of the four majors over all else, so one can likely assume this trend will continue, if not be exacerbated further, as Djokovic closes in on the back half of his 30’s with the major title record now within sight.
Despite the stunning success of the past 12 months, few players have more question marks hanging over them than Djokovic heading into 2022. With his vaccination status still a mystery, his presence in Melbourne to chase a fourth straight Australian Open crown and 10th overall (as well as the outright lead in the major title race) remains far from confirmed. While it would be a real shock to see him not make the trip, don’t rule it out when it comes to an athlete as stubborn and self-assured as Djokovic. The hopeful return of Nadal could lead to another blockbuster French Open showdown in what could be the Spanish legend’s last trip to Paris. Expect Djokovic to adopt a similarly picky schedule and, as a result, potentially surrender the world’s number one ranking to Medvedev or Zverev, depending on their form as the season progresses. Will 2022 be the year Novak Djokovic puts all of the debate to rest for good? If it’s anything like his year in 2021, it appears that could be a very real possibility.