From the moment Novak Djokovic beat Alexander Zverev to reach the final of the US Open, you knew that he was just one win away from changing tennis.
Make no mistake of it, that is what winning the calendar Grand Slam would have done. It would have changed what was even seen as possible, as well as changing the perception of how we measure greatness in our sport.
For all Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will always be greats, and rightly so, the question of the greatest would have been settled – for the majority and objective commentators at least. There simply would not have been a statistical metric left to make an argument to the contrary.
Even if Djokovic wins more majors than Federer and Nadal, there will always be questions of context and culture, but a calendar Grand Slam is next-level conclusive.
After-all, no one else in the current game has it. Pick whatever legend of the modern game you want, no matter how good, and they don’t have a calendar Grand Slam. No one else has even got close to it for more than 50-years, and that was before hardcourts even existed.
But, if it was easy, everyone would do it, right? It wasn’t meant to be for Novak Djokovic on this occasion. By his own admission, the pressure became stifling; the sheer weight of history too great for one man to carry.
By the time Djokovic sat beneath his towel at the final changeover of the match, he knew the chase was over.
As he sobbed and wept amidst the appreciation of the crowd, it was hard to pinpoint exactly what was going through his head.
“Relief,” he explained later. “I was glad it was over. The build-up for the tournament, everything I had to deal with mentally and emotionally throughout last weeks was a lot.
“At the same time, I felt sadness, disappointment and gratitude to the crowd. I was just glad that finally the run is over.”
It was a good question for the journalist to ask, and it was one that Djokovic himself probably needed to answer just for his own good.
However, it wasn’t the question that captured the narrative. That is a question that Djokovic cannot answer and may not even be aware is brewing.
Djokovic set out to change his relationship with tennis by essentially conquering it more comprehensively than anyone else and starting to feel the freedom of a little closure. It is something he has been open about a lot this year: as a 34-year-old father of young children, tennis is no longer the dominating force in his life, and rightly so.
Of course, he couldn’t win the US Open. It was one win too far, and he couldn’t make that one last big push to cement the change in his relationship with tennis.
What he did do, though, probably unbeknownst to him as he wept beneath his towel, was change tennis’ relationship with him.
For much of his career, too much of the media and the hardcore fanbase have sought to dehumanise Djokovic. While his legions of fans are unwavering in their devotion, he has struggled to capture the affection and imagination of the neutrals, and it’s something he has acknowledged himself.
There are reasons for that, of course. Cultural ones, which are not relevant here beyond an acknowledgement, but there is also the fact that people, in general, relate to vulnerability, and Djokovic has rarely shown any.
His tennis is such a level, and his mental application so stoic, that he exposes vulnerability in others. If it is loss and hardship that truly reveals us, how can someone whose career has involved more success than any of his peers make that connection? He is the bad guy, the one who, more often than not, stops everyone’s favourites from winning, and you don’t empathise with the bad guy.
And that is why the images of Djokovic breaking down and sobbing at the US Open have touched so many. They showed him for what he is, and what he has actually been all along – not some coldly ruthlessly robotic winning machine who delights in dashing the dreams of others, but a human like the rest of us, with dreams of his own and vulnerability in his soul.
There was no ambiguity within the images we saw. It was simply a man, struggling with his emotions and trying to keep on top of them in the moment of truth, but ultimately being powerless to contain them.
Not all of us can set ourselves the goals and dream the dreams that someone of Novak Djokovic’s talent can, but we all have them – and we all know how it feels to fall short. It’s the most relatable facet of the human condition.
There are those for whom their opinions of Djokovic will not have been changed by events on Arthur Ashe. In fact, there will be plenty who will likely outright enjoyed seeing him fail. Those people are as entitled to their opinion as anyone else.
But for many, many others, Djokovic weeping into a towel, locked in a silent connection with a crowd who finally embraced him and offered him the acceptance he feared may never come will become just as enduring, and endearing, as any of the countless shots of him holding a winners’ trophy aloft.
And, while it may not have been the missing piece of his legacy that he hoped to add in New York, it is arguably the piece he needed, and deserved, the most.
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