Photo: Martin Sidorjak
The crowning glory of a memorable 2021 for Novak Djokovic was going to be a victory at the US Open – giving him only the fourth calendar-year Grand Slam in history and the first since Aussie great Rod Laver’s more than a half century ago.
And there was even the possibility of an upgrade for Djokovic – to a ‘Golden Slam’ if he was able to win the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
His sweep of this year’s Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon championships was so rare that he was the first player since Laver to even get to one event away from the greatest feat in the sport of tennis.
In hindsight it’s easy to cite his decision to play the Olympics, just two weeks after winning Wimbledon, as the misstep that compromised his chances for the Grand Slam – that passing on the opportunity for a Golden Slam to focus solely on the Grand Slam at the US Open would have been the prudent decision.
But Djokovic is a proud Serb, virtually a god in his homeland, and following the flag to Tokyo was probably something he had no choice about.
As things turned out, the Games of the XXXII Olympiad were a disaster for him. In the sweltering heat of mid-summer Tokyo, he struggled and was upset 1-6, 6-3, 6-1 by Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals after leading 6-1, 3-2 with a break, and then lost 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 to Pablo Carreno Busta in the bronze medal match – a match when he got so frustrated that he threw his racquet five rows up into the empty courtside seats early in the final set.
“I feel terrible,” Djokovic said after losing to Zverev. “My serve just drastically dropped. I didn’t get any free points from 3-2 up in the second. My game fell apart.”
He subsequently pulled out of the bronze medal mixed doubles match with partner Nina Stojanovic.
Post-Olympics he skipped the ATP 1000 event in Cincinnati and at the US Open needed four sets to win four of his five matches on his way to the semi-finals. There he again faced Zverev and, in a Friday evening match featuring three hours and 33-minutes of intense racquet-to-racquet combat, prevailed 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 to get to within one match of a career-altering achievement. But the Sunday final proved too much for the battle-weary 34-year-old. He won over the crowd with his gritty effort but Medvedev had too much game on the day – the tidy, anticlimactic score-line read 6-4, 6-4, 6-4.
The fact that Zverev and Medvedev essentially combined to ruin Djokovic’s Grand Slam dream foreshadowed an end-of-season that saw the world No. 1 gain revenge over the Russian 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the Paris ATP 1000 final but then fall to the German in the ATP Finals semi-finals in Torino 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-3.
Lastly, he came up a step short of a potential match-up with Medvedev at the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid. After carrying Serbia on his back with four singles wins, he and Filip Krajinovic were beaten in the deciding semi-final doubles match by the top-ranked pairing of Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic of Croatia.
A goal-oriented competitor, Djokovic dearly wanted to win a second Davis Cup but he will have to content himself with a 2021 when he won a record-tying 20th Grand Slam title and finished No. 1 in the ATP rankings for a record seventh time.
Rafael Nadal lost his bid for a 14th Roland Garros title when he was beaten 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 by Djokovic in the semi-finals while enduring pain in the late stages due to his longstanding issue with the troublesome navicular bone in his foot. He did win titles in Barcelona and Rome but after the French Open only played two more matches (in Washington) before shutting down his season and winding up ranked No. 6 – his record 17th consecutive year with a top-10 finish.
The players ranked No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 – Medvedev, Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas – have established themselves as legitimate challengers to the dominance of Djokovic and his fellow 20-time Grand Slam titlists, Nadal and Roger Federer.
Medvedev, 25, led Russia to the ATP Cup in February and the Davis Cup in December, was runner-up to Djokovic at the Australian Open and then made his big breakthrough by winning the US Open. He also won Marseille, Mallorca, the National Bank Open presented by Rogers in Toronto and was runner-up in Paris/Bercy and at the ATP Finals.
Zverev, who played much of 2021 under the cloud of the domestic abuse allegations of his former girlfriend Olga Sharypova, had a stellar year winning six titles – Acapulco, Madrid, Tokyo Olympics, Cincinnati, Vienna and the ATP Finals. If the 24-year-old had received ATP 1000-event level points for winning the Olympics, he would have wound up very close to the No. 2-ranked Medvedev.
As for Tsitsipas, 23, his highlights were winning Monte Carlo and finishing a 6-7(6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 runner-up to Djokovic at Roland Garros after being a set away from his first Grand Slam title. He was also runner-up to Nadal in Barcelona and a semi-finalist at both the National Bank Open in Toronto and Cincinnati. At the US Open, he lost a memorable third-round encounter 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(2), 0-6, 7-6(5) to Spanish rising star Carlos Alcaraz. His season tailed off in the fall due to an elbow injury that required surgery last month.
Alcaraz, who lost 6-1, 6-2 in the second round of Madrid in May to his compatriot and idol Nadal the same month he turned 18, then began a remarkable assent to end 2021 at No. 32. He won his first title in Umag, Croatia, reached the quarter-finals of the US Open and semi-finals in Winston Salem and Vienna to finish as the highest-ranked player his age in the year-end rankings since Ukrainian Andrei Medvedev at No. 24 in 1992. Unfortunately, a COVID-19 diagnosis prevented him from making his highly-anticipated Davis Cup debut at home at the Finals in Madrid last month.
Not quite the Emma Raducanu of the men’s tour, Alcaraz appears to have limitless potential and a sympathetic personality under the guidance of 2003 French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero.
Two other players who impressed in 2021 were 22-year-old Casper Ruud who won five tournaments (all ATP 250s) in Geneva, Bastad, Gstaad, Kitzbuhel and San Diego to finish at No. 8 and Jannik Sinner, 20, who continued his rankings climb winning four titles – at Melbourne 1 and in Washington, Sofia and Antwerp – to finish at No. 10.
Canada could have had its second player to be Top 10 in the year-end rankings (Milos Raonic in 2014 and 2016) had it not been for an abdominal injury that forced Matteo Berrettini out of the year-end ATP Finals after one match. His Italian compatriot Sinner was the replacement and by winning one match, over Hubert Hurkacz, he earned 200 points, enough to edge out Félix Auger-Aliassime by 42 points – 3,350 to 3,308 – for the No. 10 spot.
Sinner’s good fortune reduced Auger-Aliassime’s stay in the Top 10 to one week – November 15-22. The now 21-year-old from Montreal didn’t really hit his stride in 2021 until the grass-court season when he reached the final in Stuttgart (ATP 250), the semi-finals in Halle (ATP 500) and quarter-finals at Wimbledon.
He finished off the Grand Slam year with an impressive run to the US Open semi-finals where he lost to eventual winner Medvedev 6-4, 7-5, 6-2. With wins at the Australian Open and in Barcelona, as well as loss in Stockholm, Auger-Aliassime evened his career head-to-head rivalry with compatriot Denis Shapovalov at 3-3.
Shapovalov’s year might have come down to a single point in the Wimbledon semi-final against eventual champion Djokovic. He had lost only two points on serve when he served for the first set at 5-4. At 30-all, he misfired long with a sitter forehand into an open court that would have given him set point. It turned out to be a missed golden opportunity and probably his best chance in a superb-quality, Centre Court gem that ended 7-6(3), 7-5, 7-5 for the now six-time Wimbledon champion.
“He was the better player I think for the first couple of sets,” Djokovic said. “In important moments I think I probably held my nerves better than he did, just make him play an extra shot, make him do an unforced error.”
Reduced to tears by the disappointing outcome, the result nonetheless earned Shapovalov eight weeks – July 12 to August 30 – at a career-high No. 10 ranking. He ended 2021 as runner-up in Stockholm (Tommy Paul) and at a year-end No. 14. Raonic suffered a calf injury at the Miami Open in March and only played one more match (Atlanta) in 2021, causing his ranking to tumble from No. 14 to No. 70.
Vasek Pospisil’s ranking also dropped, from No. 61 to No. 133, in a year when he skipped the entire clay-court season and only once (Eastbourne in June) won two matches at a tournament. His involvement with the Professional Tennis Players Association and a back issue in the fall probably prevented him from finding his best form in 2021.
At the Davis Cup Finals last month, Canada, without Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and Raonic, was eliminated after 3-0 losses to Sweden and Kazakhstan.
For Roger Federer aficionados, and despite his uncertain post knee surgeries future, he remains at No. 16 in the rankings and still has points counting from Wimbledon ’19, Halle ’19, Madrid ’19 and Miami ’19 as well as Aussie Open ’20, Doha ’21 and Roland Garros ‘21 – the last of which (600 from Wimbledon ’19) won’t drop off the computer until July.