Unburdened by history, Novak Djokovic has one eye on the calendar-year Grand Slam again

The 36-year-old says he’s motivated, not burdened, by the prospect of making more history

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic after beating Carlos Alcaraz in the Roland-Garros semi-final (Michael Baucher/Panoramic)

The question was asked, almost apologetically, toward the end of Novak Djokovic’s press conference after his win over Carlos Alcaraz in the semi-finals of the French Open on Friday. “Is the calendar slam in your mind at all”?

Considering that the second slam of the year is not quite complete yet, Djokovic might have been expected to dodge the question, an invitation, as it was, to hype more unnecessary pressure on his shoulders.

But Djokovic has long been a man motivated by history, driven to be the very best. Way back when he was winning his 12th Grand Slam title – when he completed the career Grand Slam at Roland-Garros in 2016 – he was not ducking the question, stating his belief that “anything is possible”.

And his answer on Friday proved that as early as it might still be, Djokovic is well aware of his opportunity, having won the Australian Open for a 10th time in January and made the final in Paris.

“Calendar slam is really far,” he said. “But maybe it won’t be that far if I win on Sunday. But let’s see. You know, I’m not thinking about calendar slam. I’m thinking really just to win another Grand Slam title here on Sunday, and I’m so close. I know it. After the finals, if I win, let’s talk about history.”

A smile broke out over his face after that comment. Having disposed of a cramping Alcaraz, Djokovic is the strong favourite to beat Casper Ruud of Norway in Sunday’s final.

Victory over Ruud would give Djokovic a men’s record 23rd Grand Slam title. That, quite rightly, is his first priority. After years of playing second fiddle to first Roger Federer and then Rafael Nadal in terms of slam wins, he now stands on the cusp of history.

Zverev: Being on the brink of history adds pressure

Should the 36-year-old win on Sunday, he will have won the first two Grand Slams of the year for the third time in his career, having done so in 2016 and 2021. To put that in context, he is the only man in the Open era to have won the Australian Open and French Opens back to back more than once. Only four other men – Rod Laver (1969), Mats Wilander (1988), Jim Courier (1992) and Rafael Nadal (2022) have done it.

In 2016, Djokovic was beaten in the third round at Wimbledon, a first sign that his motivation had dipped after securing the career Grand Slam the previous week. In 2021, Djokovic went on to win Wimbledon and was one match away from becoming the first man to do the calendar Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969, only to be beaten by Daniil Medvedev in the US Open final.

The emotions came pouring out of Djokovic during that final, the tears streaming down his face as he was given an ovation from the crowd. Afterwards, he spoke about the relief that the quest was over.

Alexander Zverev, beaten by Casper Ruud in the semi-finals at Roland-Garros, was asked if the Norwegian had any chance against Djokovic, not least because the Serb was bidding for history. His answer was interesting.

“Novak is one of the best players in the world, that’s for sure, but when you’re on the brink of history I think that adds a little bit of pressure,” he said. “You remember the US Open final he had with Medvedev after beating me in the semis. The pressure, you know, we are all human. Novak is human. We all feel it. So I think for him, for Casper, that’s the best scenario, to be honest.”

Djokovic: Pressure is a privilege, and a motivation

But throughout his career, Djokovic has revelled in these kind of situations, able to come up with his best tennis even when under the most intense pressure, driven by writing his place in the history books. He already owns the most weeks at No 1 – and he’ll regain the No 1 ranking if he wins on Sunday – and numerous other records are already his.

Wimbledon, where he has won the title seven times, including in four of the past five years, offers him an obvious chance of victory, which would leave him heading to New York again with another massive slice of history within touching distance.

Pressure, as Billie Jean King famously said, is a privilege. And answering questions from French reporters at Roland-Garros, Djokovic said he was inspired by history, not burdened by it.

“Pressure is always on my shoulders, so it’s not going to be different,” he said. “But it’s part of my sport, part of my life, all that I do. I think that having pressure is a privilege. But it’s a source of motivation, as well. Great motivation to play well and to reach Sunday.

“Before the tournament I was saying that of course for me Roland Garros is a Grand Slam, and it’s the most important tournament on this surface. So I was well-prepared so that I would be in this position so that I would be ready for this battle, battle to win this other Grand Slam title.

“I hope that I’ll play my best tennis level on Sunday. The only thing I can say now is that I’m very focused. History is always something that’s hovering over me, but I’m very happy to be in this position to write history of this sport, but I’m just thinking about winning the next match.”

After two years in which he was banned from entering the United States because he was not vaccinated against Covid-19, going back to New York chasing the calendar-year Grand Slam would be some return.

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