The fumble in the final, which followed three successive major championship wins that became the talk of tennis, is but the countersignature to Novak Djokovic’s competitive might. A loss that pointed the torch on his trophy cabinet.
The slip in the US Open final came after 27 straight wins, a streak that had propelled the 34-year-old to within a match of a historic calendar Grand Slam. That a knockout cocktail of pressure and fatigue finally got the Serb should be no more than a footnote of the 2021 tennis season which he owned in stellar fashion.
After Djokovic’s strident win in Roland Garros, where he knocked out 13-time winner Rafael Nadal in a dramatic four-hour reverse, the calendar Slam gained a golden hue.
The Tokyo Olympics were just around the corner.
Djokovic, whose ground game has more answers than opponents have questions, permutations and combinations, secured a second French Open crown making him the first ATP player to have won each of the four Slams at least twice. The first man to do so in over 50 years.
The Serb, who started 2021 with 17 major titles, arrived at the All England Club fresh from his heady 19th victory that put him one behind Roger Federer’s record which Nadal had equalled in 2020. The world No.1, who triumphed on the lawns of Wimbledon five weeks later, promptly added the Olympics to an already hectic summer schedule.
Djokovic isn’t coy about his GOAT chase, his mental might even countenances him to make an open statement of it.
The world No.1 led Alexander Zverev by a set and a break in the semifinal in Tokyo but lost his way. The top-seed lost again, for the second time in the week, this time to Pablo Carreno Busta in the bronze medal play-off clash.
As compulsive as Djokovic’s story was in 2021, a pair of teenagers – Britain’s Emma Raducanu and Canada’s Leylah Fernandez – stirred New York with a freshness that gave an old plot new life. Raducanu, 18 then, came through the qualifiers and won the US Open without dropping a set.
World No.2 Daniil Medvedev, looking for a maiden Grand Slam crown, then rode on the breakthrough wave to stop Djokovic for a decisive straight-set result in the US Open final.
The 34-year-old, who shrinks courts with the speed of his coverage, appeared a tad slow in the title match, perhaps weighed down by the weight of history. Djokovic may have lost the final, but he won the New York fans ironically on an evening when the sport’s most dominant player over the last decade, couldn’t land his punches.
Djokovic finished 2021 with a 55-7 win-loss record, having claimed major titles at the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, while also lifting trophies at the Belgrade Open and the Paris Masters. Even though Djokovic faltered on the last two significant hurdles of his 2021 charge, it has been a historic season for the Serbian superstar, who finished year-end No. 1 for a record-breaking seventh time.
Djokovic, who has been No. 1 for a total of 353 weeks, the most at the top of the charts since the inception of the ATP rankings in 1973, began his current stint at World No. 1 almost two years ago.
“It really excites me to walk the path of legends and giants of this sport,” Djokovic said. “To know that I have earned my place among them by following my childhood dream is a beautiful confirmation that when you do things out of love and passion, everything is possible.”
Now the oldest year-end No. 1, the 34-year-old could pass another significant milestone next year. WTA legend Steffi Graf’s record of most weeks at World No. 1 stands at 377. The first half of the New Year could spark another chase. A goal, a target. The end of one season is the beginning of another race.
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