Will Nole get the calendar slam?

Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open 2012 last Sunday, making it his third straight Grand Slam title.  And already, there is anticipation of a possible Calendar Slam for the Serb.   Just in case, Calendar Slam means winning all four Grand Slams in the same year.  It is a feat that only two players have achieved in singles in the Open Era, Rod Laver and Steffi Graf.  Martina Navratilova also achieved a doubles calendar slam in 1984, but it is a feat in which she doesn’t stand alone in the women’s draw.

The fact that nobody since Laver has achieved a Calendar Slam in the men’s draw shows what an elusive feat this is.  Forget a calendar slam, after Laver, only three players  in the men’s draw have achieved a Career Slam – that is, winning each of the four slams at some or other point in their career – namely Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.   Even a Straight Slam – winning four consecutive Grand Slam titles – has eluded players since Laver.  Even in the women’s circuit, since Graf, only Serena Williams has achieved it.

But it’s not for nothing that watchers are hoping to see Djokovic break into this most exalted club.  Last year, Djokovic won three of four slams and reached the semi finals of the French Open.  He has expressed his desire to do even better this year and what does that mean but a Calendar Slam!   In a sensational 2011, he enjoyed a 70-6 win loss record.  By overcoming tough challenges from Andy Murray and Nadal at the Australian Open this year, he is already off to a dream start.

Next up is the French Open, which is expected to be his biggest hurdle to achieving this feat.  He has never won the French Open and more importantly, he will be up against Rafael Nadal, by many accounts the greatest clay court player since Bjorn Borg.  Nadal has won 6 of the last 7 French Opens and if he wins his seventh this year, he will stand alone as the King of Clay.

Should Djokovic win the French Open, he would have at least become the first player since Serena to achieve a straight slam, a feat that has eluded even Federer and Nadal.   And he would certainly be the hot favourite, match fitness permitting, to win at Wimbledon and US Open where he achieved relatively comfortably victories over Nadal in both finals.

But at this point, I am going to talk about something other than trends and stats.  More important is the indomitable spirit of a champion that is in evidence in Djokovic’s performances since last year.   To my mind, and I am sure many will agree, his semi final clash at US Open against Federer was more crucial to his hopes than the Final against Nadal.

Federer had won the first two sets and was looking unstoppable.  Djokovic unbelievably arrested the momentum and swung it in his favour to win the next two sets.  Still, the Swiss Maestro found himself serving for the match in the fifth and 40-15 up.  Run to wherever you can to watch the next few moments of play because they underline what is it that Nole does that confounds Federer and Nadal.  Djokovic produced a simply astounding service return that Federer couldn’t get even close to, to save one match point. An unfortunate net cord for Federer on the next point brought up deuce. And…would you believe it, from thereon, Djokovic won the match!  Well, Federer couldn’t believe it anyway, calling it the greatest defeat of his career.

He repeated the feat again this year in the Australian Open Final.  Even Nadal was almost gushing about Nole’s lethal weapon, saying, “Is something unbelievable how he returns. His return is probably one of the best in history.”   For someone with no mean return like Nadal, gracious as he is known to be, to say that is telling of the mental edge Djokovic has now gained over his old rivals.

And that is what brings to mind 1988, when Graf, just a year after she broke through with her first Slam title at the French Open, won everything in sight, as they say.   The passage of time and the usual revisionism that goes with it has taken the sheen off that feat a bit but, make no mistake, it was a simply stupefying landmark for such a young and inexperienced player to bag the elusive Calendar Slam (and an Olympic Gold to go with it).

To achieve this, she had to dethrone the reigning Queen of Wimbledon Navratilova, who had won six successive titles at the event at that point.  Ah, you see the parallels now!  Graf had played tennis on clay in her formative years and people wouldn’t have thought in 1988 that they were looking at a new Queen of the Wimbledon lawns then.  And certainly not when she was trailing a set and 0-2 down in the final against Navratilova.  Incredibly, she broke right back and won the next five games to win the 2nd set and eventually the title.  What stood out in that match-changing game was two powerful forehand returns that whizzed past Navratilova, who was about to make the approach to the net.  The second of these, which sealed the break, was off a second serve.  Djokovic does that to first serves and Federer and Nadal can’t get to them even from behind the baseline!

Forget history and forget past trends, if Djokovic channels that indomitable spirit for the rest of the year, he can very well achieve the unthinkable.   He has not won on clay and nobody in the men’s circuit has done it on grass, clay and hard court but there’s always a first time.   And you had better be watching it if it’s history in the making!

 

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