As he returns to the site of his biggest on-court scandal for the US Open, world number one Novak Djokovic will be chasing a piece of history that will forever set him apart from rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The Grand Slam.
Not since Australian great Rod Laver claimed his second Grand Slam in 1969 has a men’s singles player achieved the feat.
Should Djokovic win the title at Flushing Meadows this fortnight and upend more than 50 years of history, his statistical status as the GOAT of men’s tennis will be impossible for tennis fans to deny.
But they may always question his place as a sportsman.
And, whether fair or not, it’s entirely possible his impact on the sport and his memory will not be the same as the two men his career and name will always be tied to.
On court, the 34-year-old Serbian is a dynamo.
Athletic as it gets and flexible beyond belief, Djokovic’s ability to almost do the splits as he slides to dig a ball out is not only impressive … on hard courts it is something he practically invented.
And while his physicality is something to behold, his pure statistics are something else indeed.
His winning percentage at every grand slam tournament is equal to, or better than, his chief rivals with the exception being Nadal at Roland Garros. But Nadal is nicknamed ‘The King of Clay’ for a reason.
To put it into context, Djokovic has won 91 per cent of all his matches at the Australian Open, compared to Federer with 87 per cent and Nadal with 82 per cent.
At the French he has an 84 per cent win rate, Federer 81 and Nadal, who has only ever lost three matches on the French clay, two of those to Djokovic, an amazing 97 per cent.
At Wimbledon where Federer is so vaunted and played some of his greatest tennis, Djokovic’s 89 per cent win rate trumps the Swiss’s 88 and Nadal’s 82.
While at the US Open Djokovic and Federer are level on 86 per cent and Nadal is at 85.
The numbers are impressive and they get even better when you realise that after Djokovic bounced back from injury and a mid-career stumble in 2018 he has won eight of the 14 slams he has contested.
But should he take out the Grand Slam those stats are simply the backing vocals of his career.
And yet the man is not even close to universally loved.
Great athletes who achieve great things usually are.
A look at other sports will tell you that champions — despite any foibles — are usually the recipients of plaudits. Surfing greats Kelly Slater and Layne Beachley were loved.
Basketballers Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan are revered to this day, one in death and the other with plenty of testimony he wasn’t the nicest guy in the world to teammates or opponents.
Tiger Woods, for all the infidelity, still maintains a legion of fans, even if he never swings a golf club again.
And, in tennis, Federer and Nadal are given gratuitous praise.
Yet for Djokovic, it’s not the case.
Does perception become reality?
Historically, he’s always been a little different.
A younger Djokovic retired from many matches early in his career when the going got tough and was even flayed by Federer at the time.
The Swiss, who is off for another round of knee surgery and may never return at the age of 40, is very much remembered as a perennial nice guy and not the artiste with the wild temper of his early 20s.
Djokovic, though, seems to still be a version of his younger self, the one who quit against former world number one Andy Roddick in the quarters of the 2009 Australian Open.
Federer went for the jugular.
“I mean it’s happened before, it’s not the guy who’s never given up in his career,” Federer said at the time.
“He gave up against me in Monaco last year (2008) because of a sore throat … those are the kind of things you wonder about.”
Twelve years later things have changed, but more on that shortly.
Speaking of Roddick, he disliked Djokovic so much at the time that in 2008, he questioned the legitimacy of Djokovic reportedly having an ankle injury ahead of their final-eight US Open battle.
Djokovic moved well in that match, so well he beat Roddick in four sets and then shot him some pointed words in the post-match interview. The boos rained down from the New York crowd.
And the story goes that Roddick confronted him in the locker room and had the Serb pinned against one of the lockers before he realised Djokovic’s trainer would have had him beat and he pulled back.
But for Djokovic, it wasn’t so much the start of something but the coming-out party.
From there his legend on-court grew but it was the moment he embraced his darker side, part “be damned with tennis fans”, part wanting to be accepted.
It’s become somewhat of a Jekyll and Hyde act ever since.
Sometimes, he can’t seem to understand why fans don’t treat him with the same reverence as Federer and Nadal or even Andy Murray.
Some days, as his Aussie sparring partner Nick Kyrgios said, it’s like Djokovic has a “sick obsession” with wanting the adoration he never really gets.
History of controversy
There are reasons for that.
In 2008 it may have been that Djokovic didn’t like being questioned about his injury status, but we’re now in 2021 and he still doesn’t, especially when he leans into it.
Big match, in trouble, too often there’s an excuse or an injury.
Two of the more infamous examples came at Melbourne Park, this year against American youngster Taylor Fritz, Djokovic was down a break at one-set-all and called for the trainer.
It threw Fritz before Djokovic revealed after the win that he had a “tear” in his abdominal. That sort of injury usually stops tennis players in their tracks, for Kyrgios it ended his Wimbledon this year.
Djokovic though — and perhaps because he is a champion — played through it and won the tournament.
That was hardly the coup de grace though.
In the 2015 Australian Open final against Murray, he wandered around the court frequently staggering and falling over before Murray seemed to fall hook line and sinker into the trap and Djokovic rose from the ashes like a phoenix to obliterate the suddenly off-his-game Scot.
Murray looked forlorn and let his thoughts be known post-match.
“The third set was frustrating because I got a bit distracted when he, like, fell on the ground after a couple of shots,” Murray said.
If it was gamesmanship, it’s allowed, but it’s not entirely looked upon fondly, it’s also why so many doubt him whenever he calls a medical time out.
Adria Tour debacle
While his on-court indiscretions have been frequent, Djokovic committed what may have been his biggest faux pas in 2020.
Amid the height of the pandemic in Europe, Djokovic, whose views on vaccines do not align with any public health message, ran events for players while the ATP Tour was on hiatus.
The ill-fated Adria Tour was widely panned and then, at an event, Bulgarian star Grigor Dimitrov tested positive for COVID-19.
Djokovic then tested positive for the virus, as did Borna Coric and others.
Djokovic initially defended his decision to hold the event, insisting the virus was on the wane and he felt the conditions were safe and that his intentions were pure.
He would eventually issue an apology, but footage of him, Dimitrov and Coric partying shirtless flew in the face of that.
Fellow players, including Britons Dan Evans and Murray, were highly critical of him for it, with Evans particularly pointed.
“I don’t think you should be having a players’ party and dancing all over each other,” Evans said.
“He should feel some responsibility for his event and how it transpired. It is a poor example to set. Even if the guidelines in that country are not 2 metres, it (COVID) is not a joke is it?”
Djokovic for his part has maintained he does not believe vaccines should be mandatory, even as the Delta variant takes hold.
“I feel that should be a personal decision, whether you want to get vaccinated or not,” he said ahead of the US Open.
Not too long ago Nadal rankled him with comments about Djokovic’s ruthlessness.
“I mean, Novak is more obsessed about this, more focused … not in a negative way … he’s more focused on just these things and it means a lot to him, all of this stuff,” Nadal said in 2018.
“Like he’s always saying and talking about these records and well done for him … but it’s not my approach to my tennis career.”
For his part, Djokovic shot back that it was hardly a bad thing.
“Maybe someone cannot say something and then stick to it, but I never found it hard to say: ‘I want to break that record or reach a certain goal’.”
And perhaps that’s what it takes.
But when he walks out onto Arthur Ashe Stadium this week for what looks an easy round one victory against a qualifier, the memories for Djokovic will be there of failures past.
The US Open hasn’t been his happiest hunting ground. He hasn’t won there since 2018.
His chance at the Golden Slam (all four majors plus the Olympic title) was destroyed by rising German star Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals in Tokyo.
Djokovic then obliterated his Head racket after losing the bronze medal match to Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta and quit on his mixed doubles partner Nina Stojanovic ahead of their medal match, citing a left-shoulder injury.
It once again took the gloss off for some people.
Stojanovic will likely never get such an opportunity again and Aussies John Peers and Ash Barty were handed bronze medals by default, probably not as sweet as Homer Simpson once made out.
And that was after he spoke at that tournament about being able to handle pressure, welcomes it in fact, said it was a privilege, but ultimately he crumbled under it and a rampant Zverev.
Now he’s off to New York and chasing history, knowing the last player to have a chance at the Slam in New York was Serena Williams.
She, like peers Nadal and Federer, won’t be there this year, with injury and age taking their toll.
But in 2015, after claiming the three other majors she flew close to the sun, made it all the way to the semi-final and fell to Roberta Vinci 4-6, 6-2, 6-2.
For those wondering, Italian Vinci went on to lose the final to compatriot Flavia Pennetta that year, she also only made the final eight of a grand slam three other times, all at the US Open.
Williams though swore blind that pressure was not something she felt. Eerily similar to Djokovic in Tokyo.
But if he thought the pressure was big in Tokyo, in New York it’s going to be turned up to a temperature akin to the Fahrenheit that melts that concrete jungle at this time of year.
Not only because he is chasing the history he craves but because last year he was the first men’’ singles player, since Austria’s Stefan Koubek at the 2000 French Open, to be defaulted from a slam.
It happened when he hit a ball behind him and it collected a linesperson in the throat, ironically also against Busta.
Djokovic suggested he should not have been defaulted because it was an accident, something tournament referee Soeren Friemel confirmed but stood by the decision.
It did not endear him to New Yorkers, so now as he chases history with history on his shoulders, it’s likely once again the tennis public won’t be on his side.
They may never be but he can become the greatest of all time and it’s what is driving him this week.
The US Open begins on Monday.