Novak Djokovic in 2021: dominant force, like no man before (and it’s not over)

With three of the four Grand Slams and the year-end No 1 ranking in the bag again, the Serb enjoyed one of his best ever years

Novak Djokovic, 2021 Serbia’s Novak Djokovic celebrates winning his semi final match against Spain’s Rafael Nadal. © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

In 2021, Novak Djokovic further established his credentials to be regarded as the greatest player of all times as he dominated the Grand Slam events and cemented his position as the world No 1.

The 34-year-old Serb won the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon titles and got to within one victory of the coveted calendar-year Grand Slam when he reached the final of the US Open, only to run out of steam as Daniil Medvedev beat him in straight sets to win his first major.

Djokovic won five titles, picking up the Paris Masters and Belgrade in addition to his three slams and he ended the year ranked No 1 for a record seventh time. He stands level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on a record 20 Grand Slams, in perfect position to pull clear in 2022.

  • Djokovic’s ranking at the end of 2020: 1
  • Djokovic’s ranking at the end of 2021: 1
  • Djokovic’s 2021 win-loss record: 55-7
  • Djokovic’s 2021 titles: 5

Djokovic’s best performance: Beating Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals at Roland-Garros

In a near-perfect year, there are plenty of candidates for his best performance but his win over Rafael Nadal in a gruelling, blistering, lung-busting, almost physics-defying semi-final at Roland-Garros has to top the lot.

On Nadal’s sacred ground, where he has won the title an unbelievable 13 times, Djokovic arrived in the semis to face his old foe having lost their most recent battle in Rome a couple of weeks beforehand and having been thumped by the Spaniard in the final in Paris the previous October.

But that was then and this was now. Djokovic was unrelenting, brilliant, matching Nadal from the baseline, out-serving him, out-manoeuvring him and outlasting him physically, with Nadal finishing the match with a limp, his ailing foot finally giving way. Some of the rallies were so insane that their peers posted on social media during the match.

“Just one of these nights and matches that you will remember forever”

Novak Djokovic

The match was so good that French president Emanuel Macron intervened to get a special exemption for the pair from the 11pm curfew that was in place because of Covid-19.

“Definitely the best match that I was part of ever in Roland Garros,” Djokovic said. “And top three matches that I ever played in my entire career, considering quality of tennis, playing my biggest rival on the court where he has had so much success and has been the dominant force in the last 15-plus years, and the atmosphere which was completely electric. Just amazing. I was very happy that there was no curfew. I heard there was a special waiver so they allowed the crowd to stay. Just one of these nights and matches that you will remember forever.”

Djokovic’s best Grand Slam result: Winning the French Open for the second time

Take your pick. From a record ninth Australian Open title, to a sixth Wimbledon, something only Federer and Sampras have bettered. But in terms of importance, his victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final of the French Open just about tops the lot.

Not only did he have to come from two sets to love down, winning 6-7 (6-8) 2-6 6-3 6-2 6-4, but it also meant he has won all four Grand Slam titles at least twice, something only Australians Rod Laver and Roy Emerson had previously done.

Probably ranks at the top three all-time achievements and experiences that I had in my professional tennis career.

Novak Djokovic on 2021 Roland-Garros

“I am thrilled and I’m very proud of this achievement,” he said. “I think (being) part of the history of the sport that I love with all my heart is always something that is very inspiring and very fulfilling for me. I couldn’t be happier and more satisfied with this kind of scenario in the last 48 hours. Probably ranks at the top three all-time achievements and experiences that I had in my professional tennis career.”

It also put him halfway to the calendar-year Grand Slam.

Djokovic’s best moment of the season: Winning Wimbledon for his 20th Grand Slam title

It seems strange to say but Djokovic was not at his absolute best in Australia or at Wimbledon, where he had to battle hard to win the title for a sixth time. But despite the growing pressure of staying on track for the calendar-year slam, Djokovic dug deep, dropping his opening set of the tournament to Britain’s Jack Draper and then fending off Denis Shapovalov in the semis.

His victory over Matteo Berrettini in the final, coming from behind to win 6-7, 6-4, 6-4, 6-3, gave him a record-equalling 20th Grand Slam title, pulling him alongside Federer and Nadal, a phenomenal achievement when you consider that he has played his entire career in the same era as his two biggest rivals.

Equalling Federer and Nadal’s mark of 20 slam wins was a massive achievement for Djokovic, elevating his status in the game even further and prompting many to suggest that he is the GOAT – the greatest of all time.

I consider myself best and I believe that I am the best

Novak Djokovic

“I consider myself best and I believe that I am the best, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking confidently about winning slams and making history,” Djokovic said.

“But whether I’m the greatest of all time or not, I leave that debate to other people. I said before that it’s very difficult to compare the eras of tennis. We have different racquets, technology, balls, courts. It’s just completely different conditions that we’re playing in, so it’s very hard to compare tennis, say, from 50 years ago to today.”

Tennis – Wimbledon – All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, London, Britain – July 11, 2021 Serbia’s Novak Djokovic celebrates with the trophy alongside Italy’s Matteo Berrettini after winning the men’s final

“Worst” moment of the season: Losing in the final at the US Open

Until 2021, no man had managed to win the first three Grand Slams of the year since Rod Laver won the second of his calendar-year Grand Slams in 1969. The great Australian, who first achieved the incredible feat in 1962, was there in New York to witness Djokovic’s quest to join him in the most elite of groups and despite all the pressure, it seemed like Djokovic would manage to pull off the impossible.

Beaten by Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals of the Olympics – which ended his chances of the Golden Slam – Djokovic had looked understandably fatigued but his resolve was unchanged, dropping the first set three times on his way to the last four. In the semis, he needed all his energy to get past Alexander Zverev and when he arrived in the final, he found himself up against Mevdedev, the man he’d beaten in the Australian Open final.

This time, though, with all the pressure, expectation and the miles in his legs, Djokovic had nothing left. The Serb was beaten 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. But as the match slipped away, Djokovic sat on his chair trying in vain to fight back the tears, only to receive perhaps the best reception from a crowd he’s ever enjoyed in his life. It didn’t prevent him from losing, but the effect lived on long after the match was over.

“Of course, part of me is very sad,” he said. “It’s a tough one to swallow, this loss, I mean, considering everything that was on the line. But on the other hand I felt something I never felt in my life here in New York. The crowd made me (feel) very special. They pleasantly surprised me. I did not expect anything, but the amount of support and energy and love I got from the crowd was something that I’ll remember forever.

“I mean, that’s the reason on the changeover I just teared up. The emotion, the energy was so strong. I mean, it’s as strong as winning 21 Grand Slams. That’s how I felt, honestly. I felt very, very special. They touched my heart, honestly. Of course, in the end of the day you want to win. You’re a professional athlete. These are the kind of moments that you cherish. These are connections that you establish with people that will be lasting for a very long time.”

Djokovic off the court in 2021: Vaccination ambiguity

Novak Djokovic courted controversy in 2021 with his equivocation on the subject of whether or not he would take the Covid-19 vaccine. The world No 1 said he believes taking the vaccine is a personal choice and refused to say whether he would take it, even if he needed to in order to play at the Australian Open, where players will need to be fully vaccinated to compete, unless they have a valid medical exemption.

Djokovic by Djokovic : “The year was phenomenal”

With three Grand Slam titles, taking his tally to a record-equalling 20th, a runner-up effort in the other and finishing the year ranked No 1 for a record seventh time, 2021 will go down in history as one of Djokovic’s best ever, if not the best.

“The year was phenomenal”

Novak Djokovic

“It was a great season, no doubt,” he said. “I mean, I did not play many tournaments, but still managed to end the year at No 1 for the seventh time, broke records for the year-end No 1, historic No. 1, won three out of four slams. The year was phenomenal. Maybe could have done better in some other ATP events. But all in all really good ending of the season as well with a title in Paris and semi-finals (at the ATP Finals).

Tennis Majors’ assessment: So nearly the perfect year

After winning yet again in Australia, Djokovic said he intended to focus on the Grand Slams, aiming to chase down Federer and Nadal. Beating Nadal on his way to the French Open title was a big boost and as 2022 begins, he’s perfectly placed, it seems, to outstrip both of his biggest rivals.

His defeat at the Olympics was a disappointment and his US Open loss obviously tough to take. But he shows no sign of slowing down, even though he turns 35 in May. And while logic would suggest another year like 2021 is unlikely, he remains the world No1, the favourite at every event he plays, with the possible exception of Roland-Garros. As a student of the sport, he will know that Rod Laver never reached another slam final after 1969, but Djokovic will surely not suffer the same fate.

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