The true sign of a champion athlete is the way he/she carries the mental baggage of entering each tournament as the one to beat, the all-out favorite, the player everybody wants to get rid of. It’s almost always the me-versus-the-world siege mentality in the locker room, a bubble which has to be created to block out all the ill-wishers and jealous contemporaries.
Novak Djokovic, the best tennis player on the planet, has entered every tournament with a confident grin for the last two years. He knows that, once he steps on court, anything less than a title win is considered to be a major disappointment, an upset of mega proportions. The pressure could get to anybody – just to get that niggling “loss” out of the way.
Unfortunately for the Serb, that loss finally came for him in a Grand Slam – bang in the middle of his quest to achieve the near-impossible Calendar Year Grand Slam (winning all four majors in a single year). He had already become the first male tennis player in the open era to hold all four titles at once, after finally winning the French Open in May. His third-round loss to big-serving American Sam Querrey at Wimbledon on Saturday, though, didn’t leave any question mark over his legacy. If anything, it may have provided relief to the world: he won’t win EVERYTHING after all. He won’t render others inconsequential in every single tournament he enters. He can lose, after all. And for once, somebody else can win. People want underdog tales, fairy tales and new winners – a part and parcel of any sport – which may sometimes lead them to actually be joyous at the exit of all-conquering Novak.
Here are the list of streaks snapped in his “massive” upset loss to Querrey:
30 – consecutive Grand Slam match wins in a row (record)
28 – consecutive Slam quarterfinals in a row (second to Federer’s 36)
7 – years since he last lost before the second week of a major (French Open 2009)
6 – Grand Slam finals in a row (second to Federer’s 10)
9 – Consecutive Slam semifinals in a row (2014 Australian open QF)
Many may say that the record in sight, the first time he was ever in a position to win all four majors, including the Olympics, could have bogged him down. Winning the French surely must have let him ease off the pedal; it was the realization of a long-cherished dream after all, to be the 8th ever player to win all the Slams on different surfaces. Even Federer in 2009 had lost the Australian Open final before winning the French Open and Wimbledon, and then lost the US Open final, too. 2015 was as close to a perfect season any open-era male tennis player had ever accomplished, and Djokovic even chose to not play any of the traditional grass-court warm-up events at Halle and Queens. Which means that he entered Wimbledon without having played any tennis since his French Open win, and would have to use his early rounds as practice – something that Querrey may not have fancied.
Djokovic’s exit, of course, passes the pressure onto other ‘favorites’, blowing the draw wide open for the first time since the 2014 Australian Open. Suddenly, Andy Murray, who is coincidentally in his best form since 2013, is now the odds-on favorite to win his second Wimbledon title. He was slated to face Djokovic in the final, but must get past volatile Aussie Nick Kyrgios in the fourth round first. If he does, there’s little that stops him on his serene path to the final. But, most interestingly, this has thrown the draw open for Djokovic’s side: Federer was slated to face him in the semis. The Swiss star will now most likely play the dangerous Milos Raonic in the semifinal, still a hard match, but considerably easier than a duel against the Serb – who had beaten Federer in three Grand Slam finals over the last two years, as well as the Australian Open semifinal this year.
Or perhaps there could be a first-time Champion – something that Wimbledon hasn’t had since, well, Murray in 2013 and Djokovic in 2011. Could it be Raonic, or perhaps Nishikori or Cilic? You never know, but few would bet against a Murray-versus-Federer final, the first since 2012, where Federer won his 17th and last Grand Slam title before being slaughtered by Murray a month later at the Olympics.
Come Sunday, Britain may find a reason to feel happy again after their Brexit and Euro 2016 embarrassment. There’s always Lewis Hamilton flying the flag high in F1, but tennis is dear to their hearts, and Murray hasn’t won a Slam in three long years now – at the peak of his career -which is why he has turned again to the man who guided him to those first two Slams, Ivan Lendl. Murray has reached, and lost, both Slam finals this year – making for 10 Slam finals and only 2 wins, a record he will want to improve this year.
Or could a 34-year old Swiss legend win his 18th title? It won’t be easy, considering he lost in both the grass-court warm-up events, and considering that he missed the French Open – his first miss since 1999, 65 consecutive Slams ago – due to a niggling back injury. He did it, though, to get fit for Wimbledon, the tournament that makes him the greatest ever to play the game. 7 titles, moving to 8.