Steffi Graf is the only tennis player to have won a Golden Slam – the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open, and the Olympics, all in the same calendar year.
Graf achieved this remarkable feat, and in essence coined the phrase itself (the Golden Slam), in 1988.
Admittedly, the chance to achieve this incredible feat comes around every four years, so in the ultra-competitive physically demanding world of modern tennis, you have to be lucky and fit to be around that year to have a shot at it.
Nevertheless, the fact that the likes of Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Serena Williams, Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert were unable to achieve this despite their long careers, is testimony to the uniqueness of Graf’s achievement.
There have been two ‘career Golden Slam’ winners besides Steffi, however, and these are the brilliant Agassi and Rafael Nadal. This means, they won all four Grand Slams as well as Olympic Gold during the course of their careers, but not all five titles in an Olympic year, like Graf did.
But this is 2016. 120 years since the first modern Games. No less than 15 Olympic Games have been played where tennis has been a regular sport (between 1928 and 1984, tennis was not played as a competitive sport at the Olympics). We have had just one gold medallist who has also won all the Grand Slams played that year. That was Steffi Graf.
Before 2016, only Jim Courier among the men’s players, at this time of the year, had been in a similar position, and he could not deliver on the promise.
By winning the Australian Open and French Open, and becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four of the major singles titles at the same time, an incredible sportsman called Novak Djokovic has primed us for this intriguing question – is 2016 to be the year everything changes, and we have our first men’s Golden Slam winner?
It’s certainly worth considering, because this is a man on a mission.
Djokovic’s childhood coach, Jelena Gencic, discovered him at the age of six, and famously stated: “This is the greatest talent I have seen since Monika Seles”.
She also later told his parents that he was a “golden child”. Gencic has sadly passed on. But will her blessings from above help the golden child with 65 career ATP Singles titles to his name, win the first ever men’s Golden Slam?
If he does, he will, almost as an aside, also become the third man and the first since Laver in 1969 to win the Grand Slam, or all four Grand Slam events in a single calendar year.
2016 has been an exceptional year for Djokovic. Even before half this year is done, his tally for 2016 is already at six titles. And the kind of form he is in, it would take a brave man to bet against him surpassing his 2011 or 2015 performances (ten and 11 titles respectively). And maybe, just maybe, that will include two titles at SW19 and Flushing Meadows, with Gold for the golden child at Rio.
Djokovic is a man who wears his immense talent comfortably on his sleeve. After all, it’s been evident since he was very young.
In 2006, after he defeated Greg Rusedski and Great Britain to keep Serbia and Montenegro in the World Group of the Davis Cup, the pragmatic British Lawn Tennis Association approached the family of the 19-year-old Djokovic to propose that he switch loyalty and play for Britain instead. Thankfully for Serbia, after much deliberation and serious discussions over a couple of months, Novak and family decided not to accept the offer.
Djokovic’s career from that point has been on the ascent.
In 2007, he broke into the top ten. In 2008, he won his first major title at the Australian Open defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, after becoming the youngest to have reached the semi-finals of all four Grand Slam events. He also won a Bronze at the Beijing Olympics. He ended the year winning the World ATP Tour Finals in London. In 2009 and 2010 he went from strength to strength and finished 2010 ranked number three in the world.
2011 was when the real dominance at the top started and Djokovic joined Nadal and Federer as the holy triumvirate at the top of world tennis, winning ten titles during the year and rising to number one in the world for the first time.
His success was so overwhelming, that his clothing sponsors Sergio Tacchini, who had signed an incentive-heavy contract with him in 2009, (after Adidas chose to move their sponsorship to Andy Murray instead) could not handle the excessive bonus payments they had to make, and in 2012 this led to the termination of the sponsorship contract!
In the intervening years, Djokovic has gone from strength to strength as a tennis player and matured as a person. He has stayed at or around the number one position for much of these past five years. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to call these the ‘Novak Years’, despite the towering presence of Federer and Nadal, and the ‘on now, off now’ flashes of brilliance from Murray and Stan Wawrinka.
Djokovic has been so dominating, that he currently has more ATP points to his name than the number two and three, Murray and Federer, combined. As we get into the second half of this calendar year, it’s mathematically impossible for anyone to unseat him from the number one ranking this year.
For a man who has just become the first to win $100 million in tennis career prize money, has an astounding 12 Grand Slams to his name, and has won every tennis tournament on earth that a top player would want to win, it’s remarkable that he is rarely a crowd favourite when he plays the Grand Slams.
This is almost inexplicable when you consider that notwithstanding his intense desire to win, he is a thoroughly nice man and following the example set by Nadal, he is graciousness personified whether he wins or loses, and talks up his opponent’s performances. The fanatical fan-base of Federer and Nadal are clinging on to their idols for a few more Slams, but Djokovic is quickly becoming the back-up plan for this fan brigade!
So what about the Olympics?
It’s clearly not for everyone, as we know from the number of professional tennis players who have already chosen not to go to the Olympics at Rio and instead play in ATP tournaments. The likes of Feliciano Lopez, Dominic Thiem, and John Isner are in this group. It takes a special kind of pride and love for one’s country to ignore the monetary benefits foregone for a couple of weeks roughing it out with other athletes.
As former world number one and three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten has been telling players recently, “It’s very worthwhile. You can relate to lots of other athletes from different countries. You go in the gym and guys are lifting 300 kilos. It’s a fascinating way of learning.”
In fact, participation in the Olympics could have unintended fringe benefits – Federer met his future wife while staying at the Sydney Olympics village with other Swiss athletes.
Djokovic goes into these Olympics with potentially three Grand Slam titles under his belt for the year (the Olympics start after Wimbledon is over) and an unassailable position at the top spot in men’s tennis.
There is also a very high probability that he will have a calendar Grand Slam in 2016 (after all, he won the US Open in both 2011 and 2015, the best years he had on the circuit before this one).
There is the knowledge that this would be his country’s best chance ever to get an Olympic Gold, and his confidence will be at a dizzying high given the amazing tennis he is currently playing.
Nadal has broken the one major jinx for which Djokovic should be immensely grateful. In 2008, he became the first men’s world number one to also win the Olympic Gold. Even history is on Djokovic’s side in 2016!
Barring medical advice against competing because of the Zika virus fears, it’s time for the ‘Golden Boy’ to emerge from the Olympic Stadium at Rio as the Man with the Golden Slam.