Novak Djokovic must be loving the afterglow of his US Open victory, which found his entire family donning customised white jackets with the number 24 – his latest grand-slam tally – inscribed on the right breast.
And yet, there might be one tiny niggle in the back of Djokovic’s mind. Because the new world No 1 has just come within a single shot of recording the most dominant season in the history of men’s tennis.
Djokovic played all 28 rounds of the majors this year, and dropped an absurdly low total of ten sets along the way. Were it not for one blemish – the decider in the Wimbledon final against Carlos Alcaraz – then the argument would be over, and his 2023 would officially be installed as the ultimate achievement in the sport.
It is poignant now to go back and look at the shot that surely cost Djokovic a perfect 28-0 record: the drive volley he struck into the net early in the fifth set of that Wimbledon final. Had he put the ball away for a down-the-line winner, it would have given him a 2-0 lead in the decider, over a far less experienced opponent.
Instead, Djokovic missed, Alcaraz managed to hold on to his serve, and it was the younger man who found the inspiration and the cold-blooded nerve to close out a 1-6, 7-6, 6-1, 3-6, 6-4 victory.
“That was my chance,” said Djokovic in the interview room after the match. “That was my opportunity. That break point, I think I played a really good point, set up that drive volley. It was very, very windy today. The wind took it to an awkward place where I couldn’t hit the smash. I had to hit the drive volley kind of falling back. I saw him perfectly, running to the opposite corner. I wanted to wrong-foot him with that drive volley, and I missed. Obviously he made a break the next game, which was enough to hold the serve till the end.”
Amazingly, 2023 was the third time in Djokovic’s career that he had maximised his major season by playing all 28 rounds. In 2021, his dream of the calendar grand slam was thwarted by Daniil Medvedev – the same man he beat on Sunday – in the US Open final. In 2015, his only defeat came against Stan Wawrinka, who delivered an apparently endless sequence of bone-crushing winners in the French Open final.
If we measure Djokovic’s performances in terms of sets won and lost, then this was his finest grand-slam season yet. More remarkably still, it came at the age of 36 – a stage when tennis players are normally expected to be declining.
In 2023, Djokovic’s win-loss record for sets at the majors was 83-10. Two years ago, he registered 80-19, while in 2015 it was 82-14.
So where are the obvious points of comparison? Only one man has performed the calendar grand slam since the war, and he did it twice. Rod Laver’s 1962 run came in at 75-15, in terms of sets, and he went 78-16 in 1969 – the second season of what is now known as the Open era.
It should be said that some of those sets were brutal, as the tie-break had yet to be invented. Laver played a 22-20 set against Tony Roche in the Australian Open semi-final, for instance.
As for the other modern giants, Roger Federer’s best season statistically came in 2007, when he suffered his only grand-slam defeat against his great rival Rafael Nadal in the French Open final. Federer went 79-9 in sets at the majors that year. His 2006 was extremely similar, with the same lone loss, and a sets score of 81-14.
As for Nadal, he recorded 75-10 in his own best season of 2010. Nadal’s only grand-slam defeat of 2010 came when he quit on his chair against Andy Murray in the Australian Open quarter-final.
John McEnroe deserves an honourable mention for his best year of 1984, which delivered an impressive tally of 62-6 in sets. McEnroe would have swept the three majors he entered (he didn’t bother travelling to Australia) but for Ivan Lendl defeating him in the French Open final after he became distracted by the whirring of a camera motor in the photographer’s pit.
Finally, Jimmy Connors’s 1974 is an intriguing one. Connors was banned from participating in the French Open that season because he had signed up to World Team Tennis instead. And the weird dates of the Australian Open in that era add another wrinkle. Do we count his loss against Ken Rosewall in the Melbourne final – which was not played until Jan 1, 1975 – as part of the season or not? Technically, Connors won every major match he played in 1974, collecting three titles along the way. And yet, as always with Connors, it’s complicated.
Going back a little further, the American great Don Budge put together a sequence which will surely never be equalled in 1938: 24 wins from 24 grand-slam matches, with a sets score of 72-3. Those numbers are just silly. But it seems fair to suggest that pre-war tennis was different era, and shouldn’t be compared with the modern game.
Since Laver, the most dominant seasons have been recorded by Connors, McEnroe, Federer, Nadal, and now Djokovic. Yet it is testament to the fascination of tennis – and the contrasting challenges presented by the different surfaces – that none of them has logged that perfect 28-0.