July 31, 2021

History, Interrupted

Novak Djokovic had a lot riding on his performance at this year's Olympics.

After his stunning, and frankly brilliant, win at the French Open, tongues started wagging that a Grand Slam and an even rarer Golden Slam were potentially in sight. And when he picked up a third straight Wimbledon title earlier this month, the countdown began in earnest -- just thirteen more match wins, and the #GOAT 🐐 contender would do what no man had ever before.

But, sadly, it was not to be.

Though Djokovic looked characteristically unstoppable in his early rounds in Tokyo this week, he ran into a surprising stumbling block in Friday's semi against Alexander Zverev. Down a set and a break, the German rallied to win eight straight games and stunned Nole for only his third win against the world #1, and his first since 2018.

And after losing the bronze medal match today against Pablo Carreño Busta, the man whose only previous win against Djokovic came thanks to a bizarre default at last year's U.S. Open, and subsequently pulling out of mixed doubles, Novak walked away from the Olympics without any hardware, an outcome I don't think anyone would have predicted a week ago.

It's the second time he's lost the consolation round at the Games -- in London 2012, he fell to Juan Martin Del Potro after losing to eventual gold medalist Andy Murray in the semis -- and one of the very few times he's lost two matches in a row. And it leaves Steffi Graf's legacy as the only person ever to win the Golden Slam in tact at least until 2024.

Of course, this is far from the last we'll hear from Djokovic, and he has plenty of opportunity to still make history this year. While he did point to the injuries he's been dealing with, he's got a month to recover before the U.S. Open, where he'll still vie to become the first man since Rod Laver to win every Major in the same calendar year. And that's no small feat.

And, who knows? Maybe now some of the pressure has been lifted form his shoulders he'll hit the courts again even stronger. After all, we've seen so clearly these last few months how much that can weigh on elite athletes, and with even a little of it taken away now, there's no reason to expect him to pick things up where he left off.

There's still a lot of history for Djokovic to make, and this may be just a little break along the way.

Elsewhere in Tokyo...

While all the Olympic tennis attention may have been on Djokovic, let's take a moment to shout out Carreño Busta who beat not just the world #1 on his way to the bronze medal, but also took out world #2 Daniil Medvedev in the quarters. He may not have won the biggest prize, but to him it's just about as good as gold.

Still that match, between Zverev and Russia's Karen Khachanov will be contested tomorrow, and while the fourth seed may be the heavy on-paper favorite, you can't count out an upset here too. Khachanov won the pair's last two meetings, albeit the most recent two yeas ago, and has notched victories over PCB, Diego Schwartzman and Ugo Humbert already this week. And given how topsy-turvy the draws have been, you never can tell what's going to happen here.

After all, who would have guessed Belinda Bencic, who'd racked up a mediocre 17-14 record so far this year, would walk away with the ladies' gold medal in Tokyo? But the world #12, who I thought for sure would drop her opener against the talented but unseeded Jessica Pegula, not only persevered, but went on to beat both of this year's Roland Garros finalists, giant-killer Elena Rybakina, and, in today's gold medal match, Marketa Vondrousova, who'd backed up her own stunning upset of Naomi Osaka by taking out eventual bronze medalist Elina Svitolina in the semis.

It's certainly been an Olympics we'd never expected in so many ways, and with so much history -- not to mention patriotic pride -- on the line, that should be no surprise. But it's going to be three years before they get a chance to play the Games again, so here's hoping they're able to keep bringing the same fire again well before then.

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