Written by Staff Writer
For Novak Djokovic, becoming only the eighth man to win all four grand slam tournaments at least twice is the next big step in his career evolution.
The 31-year-old was, in fact, two sets away from stopping Roger Federer from completing a career grand slam at the French Open last month before being thrown off course by a thumping defeat in the third round.
It was an unwelcome slump on the surface but when looking at the alternative — having somehow not won one of the four majors since winning the French in 2016 — perhaps the loss wasn’t so bad.
With the Wimbledon title — which he won in 2015 and 2016 — a possibility Djokovic has now reached the last 16 for the 10th consecutive year.
He has survived on Court 18 so far and a fourth-round meeting with Tomas Berdych on Monday represents his only potential hiccup in a rise up the rankings on the back of his title run in Paris.
The challenge for Djokovic, who has won 17 of his 32 grand slam matches this year, will be to not focus on making history — never mind the point he has already won three majors — but return to the top of the game.
That’s easier said than done.
“There is nothing else that is motivating me this year,” he said when the grand slam season began in Melbourne.
A day after beating Federer to claim his record-equaling eighth Australian Open title in January, Djokovic made his final appearance in what proved to be a miserable time for him at Roland Garros.
The then top seed was knocked out in the quarterfinals by Marin Cilic.
Djokovic went on to finish 2016 with a title in Paris to lift the French Open for the second time, but since then he has drifted down the rankings and won only three tournaments since the end of April.
On July 3, 2016 Djokovic’s ranking would have been sixth — already out of the top five. By the end of July, last season’s number one, he would have dropped to 19th.
A dip in form is understandable when you’ve lost an Open-era record 12 grand slam finals.
Djokovic has won 60% of his 607 matches since winning his sixth title in 2015, but he could not sustain his level in the lead-up to 2017, losing five of his first six matches on grass.
Thanks to winning the French Open again and reaching Wimbledon in 2016 — finishing second — his rankings have improved in 2017.
The amount of things going right for him, at the moment, is not being shown on the scoreboard.
Paris fails to launch him
Djokovic arrived in Paris still riding the momentum of his fifth Australian Open title.
But while he avoided another demolition in the second round — Fabio Fognini, the Italian, was easily dispatched — he was unable to begin his Paris grand slam with the same horror show he put together against Federer.
Last time out, Djokovic had a 1-5 record on clay and despite winning a rain-affected second round against Marius Copil, he could not replicate the performance he needed to stand a chance of a final against Federer.
A defeat there would have been a massive blow to Djokovic’s chances, but he made it to the last 16 this time around in Paris, where he was able to put aside the hip problems that have cropped up in the past two years.
Djokovic has long stated that he would retire when he no longer has the desire to play.
If he achieves what few have ever done before, he could be done before he wants to be done. And there is unfinished business.
“I think it’s time that I get the celebrations over with. I’ve done everything that I really wanted to achieve in this grand slam season,” he said after winning at Roland Garros.
“But I feel like I can still give everything, physically and mentally, this year to be the best I can be. I really believe that.
“I’m not putting a date on when I want to retire, whether it will be in three years, five years, 10 years. I’m just focusing on trying to give my best on the court and hopefully, if I’m lucky, I can live with that for the rest of my life.”
And if it means winning one more slam, he does not want it to be as a wistful consolatory gesture.
“I don’t want to be a passive grand slam champion,” he said. “I don’t want to retire because I’ve failed. I want to retire because I won.”