As climbers reach the top of a mountain, they are often prone to altitude sickness. You might say Novak Djokovic practically lives at the very top, given the enormous distance between the Serbian and his peers. So much so that a Golden Slam seemed more likely than it ever has in the history of the sport. That was until Djokovic suffered a bad bout of altitude sickness.
The sporting Gods write their own twisted script. And they decided to give a suddenly larger than life role for an unsuspecting Sam Querrey. Since losing that emotional final to Stan Wawrinka in Paris, Djokovic has won 30 straight Grand Slam matches. He looked to be well on his way to take that total to 42 and emulate Rod Laver.
This was a feat so difficult, even the great Roger Federer found it hard to fathom, at the height of his mythical powers. But the World No 1 had already taken care of the most difficult challenge, when he won the French Open in Paris.
Djokovic has been an iron-fisted emperor, drawing away by a massive 8,035 points from second placed Andy Murray. He could sit at home and remain world No 1 at the end of the season. Simply ridiculous! But then Djokovic has made the ridiculous look real with his dominant ways.
The role reversal on Friday was stunning to say the least. Querrey was serving bombs, leaving the best returner in the game toothless at the other end. The American produced backhand winners that made you quickly wonder if they came off the Serbian’s racket.
Djokovic on the other hand was dumping routine volleys in the net and driving his trademark backhand strokes an inch too far. The second set was perhaps the worst treatment Djokovic suffered in recent memory.
Nature decided to intervene, just as Querrey seemed set to disrobe the emperor of tennis. At 6-7, 1-6 rain came as a savior and Djokovic walked indoors knowing his tail was tucked between his legs. The Serbian was in a similar spot last year, walking in for rain when he was down two sets against Kevin Anderson.
On that occasion though Djokovic found a way out of the hole to produce a memorable comeback. As the two players spent an uneasy night in bed, many believed that the interruption may have robbed Querrey of the upset.
Djokovic came out firing on all cylinders, racing to a 5-0 lead in the third set. Querrey exposed Djokovic by winning three straight games, but the Serbian pushed the match into a fourth set.
As the match progressed, Djokovic was waiting to see if Querrey might wilt. But the American would have none of it, holding up like a well-installed pole in the face of gusty winds.
There were murmurs that Djokovic wasn’t 100 percent fit, but fitness is an integral part of sport and the Serbian is aware of it. Sam Querrey played the match of his life to defeat the Serbian 7-6(6) 6-1 3-6 7-6(5)
And he refused to take shelter in the state of his fitness, instead choosing to heap praise on his stoic opponent. Just as well, for Querrey showed remarkable resolve to stand up against the formidable world No 1 across the net.
Djokovic though seemed burdened by the sight of the tennis Everest – the Calendar Grand Slam.
The import of an accomplishment affects players in remarkable ways. Federer reached and surrendered four finals to Rafael Nadal on the red dirt of Paris. The Swiss knew it to be his final frontier and that made it inexplicably difficult each time he tried to reach the summit.
Serena Williams held all four titles twice in her career. Last year, she was tantalizingly close to winning a Calendar Grand Slam. But she suffered a severe bout of yips, losing the US Open semifinal to Roberta Vinci despite winning the first set.
Stalwarts of tennis such as Pete Sampras, who never got past the semifinal in Roland Garros and Ivan Lendl, who faltered twice in the finals of Wimbledon are some examples of great players wilting at the doorstep of their biggest conquest.
All good things come to an end. So too has the remarkable run of Djokovic, who has won an astounding fifteen titles since 2015, including five of the six grand slam tournaments during that period.
A great burden may have been lifted off his shoulders. It could work in his favour, if Djokovic can turn it into an opportunity to play with freedom from expectations. He is five short of Federer’s collection of 17 Grand Slam titles, but Djokovic has many miles on his well-heeled body.