Another peek into the nebulous post-GOATs ATP universe will be on offer at this year’s US Open in Flushing Meadows. The crowds may be returning to fill the silent, cavernous, concrete voids of 2020, but Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are not – the pair remaining in Europe to recuperate from their respective war wounds.
Adjacent beachfront bath-chairs, thick tartan blankets, and a repeat prescription of leeches and opium cough syrup should hopefully be enough to ready them for a return to battle next year.
Or will it?
Effulgent ‘Get Well Soon!’ missives are unlikely to emanate from the quill of Novak Djokovic in the meantime. As the last GOAT standing, the world No.1 now – finally – has the chance to complete his game of Grand Slam blackjack and overtake Federer and Nadal to reach a remarkable 21 major titles.
In the unlikely event that Djokovic does not increase his Grand Slam tally, based purely on cold, hard numbers he would still stand slightly above his regal peers. The Novak stat that most emboldens this claim is his record in the nine Masters 1000 events: the Serbian machine having won all of them at least twice, while Federer and Nadal are yet to complete the set once.
But following his surprising and volatile, medal-free exit from the Olympics, Djokovic has done nothing. Well, he may have smashed a few more racquets on his way home from Tokyo, but he hasn’t played a competitive match. And a couple of people who have shown the kind of form to suggest that Grand Slam 21 may have to be postponed until next year…
Daniil Medvedev, clearly relieved to be back on hard courts, won the Canadian Open in Toronto and looked to be reaching new heights of dominance at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. Employing his idiosyncratic, Russian unorthodox style of flat, slapped backhands Medvedev was squat-dancing his way to yet another final…until he crashed into a TV camera.
From that point on both he and the camera were left slightly out of focus – but Medvedev has clearly zoomed-in on a formula for success at the US Open.
Alexander Zverev ultimately triumphed in Ohio, which, coupled with his Olympic gold run – where he defeated Djokovic in a blockbuster semi-final – also puts him on the very short list of people who have a legitimate opportunity of denying the GOAT a calendar slam and the chance to simultaneously celebrate his 21st. Crucially, Zverev believes he can beat Djokovic, and after coming so close to winning last year, this might be his chance to tick-off two important boxes too…
After winning the Western & Southern Open without dropping a set, current queen of the post-GOAT WTA universe Ash Barty arrives in New York as the clear favourite to lift the shiny Tiffany trophy. There is probably more intrigue surrounding the form of defending champion, Naomi Osaka, who will unveil her latest Grand Slam campaign decidedly short of match practice.
Since winning the Australian Open in early February, Osaka has only played 14 matches. Barty, by contrast, has played 38 – and you can bump that number up to 48 if you’re one of those people who likes to include doubles matches in your tallies.
The withdrawal of Serena Williams from the tournament surely signals the end of another famous Grand Slam numbers pursuit – the summit of 24 now looking unassailable. And it is remarkable that even Serena could possibly end her career – despite its brilliance, despite its longevity – with a tiny, niggling sense of regret.
Margaret Court’s Grand Slam haul is asterisked by many – and for good reason – but that has not stopped Serena from desperately wanting to overtake it; to re-write the record books in her image. Will she think back, wistfully, as she too recuperates in her own beachfront bath-chair, to the times and the tournaments when her own commitment to the game wavered, and her preparations were queried?
She should’ve beaten Court’s record, but she hasn’t. And sport can be cruel like that: it doesn’t care a jot about fairytale endings. You have to give your absolute all while you can.