Has completing the career Grand Slam — winning each of the four Majors at least once — become easier in men’s tennis, with the increased homogeneity of surfaces and playing styles? Or is the sport simply at a singular moment in its lifetime with three of its greatest champions succeeding each other so swiftly? There is truth in each argument, and one does not necessarily contradict the other. But what is beyond debate is Novak Djokovic’s quality. It has been clear these last two years that the Serb has elevated his game to rarefied heights. The only caveat to his being recognised as one of the best of all time was the lack of a French Open title. In conquering Roland Garros’s unforgiving clay, the destroyer of so many dreams, Djokovic has armoured his legacy. He is just the eighth man to achieve the career Slam; also only the third, after Don Budge and Rod Laver, to hold all four Majors at the same time. Budge (1938) and Laver (1962, 1969) did it in a single year, whereas Djokovic’s string of four began last Wimbledon. But while the calendar year Grand Slam remains tennis’s holy grail, Djokovic has managed something Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the two men to precede him to the career Slam this era, have not.
Where then does Djokovic sit at the table of the greatest-ever? Only Federer (17), Nadal and Pete Sampras (14 each) have more Major titles than his 12. But Sampras never made a Roland Garros final. Bjorn Borg and Rod Laver (11 each) have fewer Grand Slam crowns, but persuasive cases. Borg did the French-Wimbledon double thrice when the transition from clay to grass was at its most challenging; and he played just one Australian Open, a tournament many top players did not bother travelling to at the time. Laver, meanwhile, lost out on five years of his prime (1963-68) because he turned professional. Some have suggested that Djokovic winning the calendar Slam this year will earn him the strongest claim to the title of the Greatest of All Time. It’s a discussion that will rage and rage, for like many things in sport, it’s unknowable. More readily apparent, however, is why Djokovic is so good. Nobody can stay with him in the long rally, for he enjoys a significant athletic edge over everyone else. And much like against a fully fit Nadal, the pressure to do too much too soon weighs heavily on opponents. Significant technical advancements to his forehand and serve have allowed Djokovic to dictate play, making him less reactive. Working meticulously, he has honed the modern baseline style to its subtlest, most effective form. His mental resilience, moreover, has both drawn from and supplemented the physical to a point where he now appears invulnerable. In professional sport, where every mask cracks, that is the hardest illusion of all.