Novak Djokovic is on verge of ultimate tennis achievement before US Open

Perhaps the clearest measure of Novak Djokovic’s greatness, as he prepares for the most significant shot he will ever have at winning tennis’s ultimate achievement, the calendar grand slam, is that he has already achieved a near equivalent feat.

Djokovic’s run of four consecutive grand slam titles between Wimbledon in 2015 and the French Open a year later already stands alone as one of the sport’s greatest ever achievements. Before him, no man had won four grand slams in a row since Rod Laver in 1969. No other man in history has ever held all four majors at once since they were split across three surfaces.

The grand slam represents the apex of professional tennis, but aside from the symbolism of winning everything in one neat calendar year and the pressure that comes with it at the end, the level of difficulty between what Djokovic has already achieved and what he is chasing in New York is similar. He may not have had to win the French Open and Wimbledon back-to-back during that sequence of wins, but Djokovic had to be at the height of his game over a period of 11 months instead of the seven-month grand slam season this year.

Yet, at the time, the feat did not receive the true attention it deserved. It was partly because of just how much history was on the line – when Djokovic defeated Andy Murray at the French Open in 2016, much of the narrative focused on him finally winning the French Open title that had eluded him for so long. It was also a reflection of a sport not quite recognising its shifting ground as Djokovic began to chase down Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at speed.

Today, there is no doubt. In March, Djokovic became the ATP record holder for weeks at No 1. By winning the French Open in June, he has now won all four majors, Masters 1000 events and ATP Finals twice, a startling feat that nobody else has even managed once. At Wimbledon, he drew level with Federer and Nadal on 20 grand slam titles. He has spent this season methodically making his case as the greatest of all time.

Even if Djokovic wins the US Open, it could be argued that this is not actually his best overall season. In 2015, he was at his astonishing physical peak, destroying all who entered his path both in and out of grand slam tournaments. He finished the year with an 82-6 (93.2%) record, reaching the final of every major and rising to an ATP record points total of 16,950 after the 2016 French Open. He faced Federer, Nadal and Murray 19 times in 2015, winning 15 encounters.

At 34 his movement and physicality is naturally diminished. The threat of his greatest rivals has petered out, leaving a group of capable younger challengers who have shown that they can pick him off in best of three-set matches, but who Djokovic remains confident against in tennis’s marathon format that requires all opponents to play at a higher level for longer.

This season has thus represented a unique stretch in Djokovic’s career. After eviscerating Daniil Medvedev in the Australian Open final, Djokovic made his intentions for the season clear: “After achieving the historic No 1 for the longest weeks at No 1, it’s going to be a relief for me because I’m going to focus all my attention on slams mostly,” he said.

How faithfully he has lived up to those words. He took a long break following the Australian Open and upon his return during the clay season he faced significant struggles, losing to Dan Evans and then Aslan Karatsev. Between Roland Garros and Wimbledon he did not compete in singles and since his failure to win an Olympic medal in Tokyo, Djokovic has not competed at all. His record outside of grand slam tournaments is 17-5 with only one title. In the tournaments that matter most, however, he is 21-0.

The assurance underpinning his game in the best-of-five-sets format has been astounding. During the French Open, Djokovic twice recovered from two sets down against younger players, beating Lorenzo Musetti in the fourth round and then Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final. Both times he seemed so certain of his ability to break down his younger opponents’ spirits and bodies with his stamina and mental strength.

This year has also affirmed the constant evolution that has allowed him to succeed deep into his 30s. Djokovic’s commitment to improving himself was exemplified by the Wimbledon title he won thanks to a serve that has improved tremendously in recent years and his increasing willingness to pair it with consistent, purposeful forays to the net on grass where he demonstrated discipline and touch.

Despite winning the year’s first three grand slam titles, Djokovic begins his title run in New York with some swirling questions after his gold medal attempts at the Tokyo Olympics ended in him conceding four matches in 24 hours. He has not played since.

But throughout his career and this year, Djokovic’s success has been defined by his ability to play up to the moment and produce his best tennis when circumstances demand it. As Serena Williams’s crushing near miss at the US Open in 2015 showed, there is no more demanding occasion than the final leg of the calendar grand slam. He is exactly where he wants to be.