Despite the absence of the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, the 2021 US Open will go down in history as being one of the most intriguing and entertaining grand slam tournaments in the open era. In a tournament that has seen youth triumph over experience and players such as Emma Raducanu, Jenson Brooksby and Carlos Alcaraz carve a name for themselves in front of the New York crowd, one man has remained unshakeable in his pursuit of history. Despite not playing his best tennis so far at Flushing Meadows, world #1 Novak Djokovic has fought his way through to the second week of the US Open and is three matches away from replicating Rod Laver’s historic 1969 achievements of winning all four Grand Slam titles in a single season.
Blocking Out the Noise
Despite not producing his very best tennis so far, what has been particularly impressive so far from the Serbian is his ability at coping with a New York crowd that has been notoriously disrespectful to him throughout his career. It is not unusual for crowds to give Djokovic a hard time during matches, but it is at Flushing Meadows in particular where Djokovic has had to bear the brunt of the crowd. This year has been no different. During his first round match against rising star Holger Rune, Djokovic thought the crowd were booing him as they were chanting his opponent’s surname, and many in the crowd actively cheered when the Serb made an unforced error.
He sounded particularly dejected in his press conference after the match as well as choosing not to do his traditional on court celebration of embracing the fans after the match, although that may have been related to the way the match ended. Things did not get any easier in his second-round match against Tallon Griekspoor. Djokovic again felt the wrath of the New York crowd as he was heckled by a fan in the front row, to the extent that security had to be called to warn the fan to stop.
However, despite these difficulties, Djokovic has remained remarkably composed on the court and has done well so far in coping with the pressure surrounding his quest of winning the Calendar Slam. The world #1 has certainly not shown the anger or frustration he showed in Flushing Meadows last year or earlier this summer in Tokyo at the Olympics. This is testament not only to his mental strength, but to the resilience and never say die attitude that has contributed to him being one of the greats of the sport.
In his fourth-round victory over home favourite Jenson Brooksby, Djokovic produced a masterclass in mental fortitude. After losing the first set 1-6 and struggling to reign in the unforced errors, instead of panicking, Djokovic refocused himself and drowned out the crowd, grinding Brooksby down to win the match in four sets. Such mental resilience stand him in good stead for the rest of the tournament.
The Road Ahead
Matteo Berrettini awaits Djokovic in Wednesday’s quarterfinal. Djokovic has been somewhat of a nemesis for the Italian in Grand Slams this season, having beaten him at Roland Garros and Wimbledon already this year. However, Berrettini took a set off Djokovic in Paris and most recently in the Wimbledon final. In that encounter at SW19, it was a tactical error from the Italian and his failure to use the backhand slice more than the topspin two handed backhand that proved a key factor that resulted in Djokovic gaining the upper hand in the match.
Berrettini has had a tough route through the draw to get to this stage. After a tight straight sets win over Jeremy Chardy in the opening round, the Italian has dropped a set in each match since, recording a four set win over Corentin Moutet in the second round, a five-set win over Ilya Ivashka in the third round and a four-set win over Oscar Otte in the fourth round, with the German’s wrist injury in the fourth set effectively ending the competitive nature of the match.
Against Otte, Berrettini looked frustrated and he wasn’t able to serve as many aces or get as many free points on his serve. However, against Djokovic he should be able to play with more freedom as all the pressure will be on his opponent. It could prove to be significant that the Italian is yet to play a match on Arthur Ashe Stadium at this year’s US Open. Playing in front of a larger crowd might just help him to produce his best tennis. As a result, will be imperative for Djokovic to continue to be mentally focussed and produce his best tennis.
Should he get past Berrettini, Lloyd Harris or Alexander Zverev await in the semifinals. Djokovic beat the German in their only Grand Slam meeting this season in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, but the German inflicted Djokovic’s most painful defeat of the season so far in the semifinals of the Olympics, a match that seems to have provided the German with the confidence to go on the longest winning streak of his career. Djokovic has never played Lloyd Harris, however, he would be a dangerous opponent with the South African having enjoyed a breakout season on the ATP Tour and he is currently playing the best tennis of his career.
Should he make the final, Daniil Medvedev, who has played the best tennis in the men’s draw at this years US Open would be his likely opponent, but Felix Auger-Aliassime – the other man still standing in the bottom half of the draw – has also impressed so far in New York.
A Remarkable Season
Regardless of how far Novak Djokovic gets in this year’s US Open, this season he has continued to push the bar and prove to his fans and critics alike why he is an all time great in our sport. The fact that we are still talking about the possibility of a Calendar Grand Slam in September is testament to the rarity or how special the achievement is. No male player this century has ever won the first three Majors of the year. Whether he achieves the Calendar Slam or not, Djokovic’s 2021 season will live long in the memory.
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