On Sunday, as everyone in our galaxy knows by now, 29-year-old Novak Djokovic became only the eighth man in history to complete the career Grand Slam, winning each of the four majors at least once. Since the Open era began, only one man had achieved this feat before this millennium.
Between 1999 and 2009, nobody had got there. It was supposed to be the holy grail of tennis, a nearly impossible feat. And yet, in the last seven years, three players have done it. How did this happen?
In 1938, America’s Don Budge won became the first person to win all four majors in a single year and thus complete the original Grand Slam. In 1969, Australia’s Rod Laver became only the second person before or since to complete the Grand Slam twice.
That was the last time anyone managed to win all four slams in the same year. In the Open era, when three of the four slams were no longer played on grass, it became a near-impossible feat, forcing the tennis world to set seemingly more attainable goals – the career slam (winning each major at least once during one’s career) and the personal Djokovic slam (holding all four majors at the same time, as the Djoker does right now.) The original Grand Slam was renamed to become the calendar Grand Slam.
The men, in particular, perhaps due to the relatively greater depth in their tour over the years and the long, physical five-set battles, have found it even harder to complete the career slam.
The reason this is considered to be the ultimate challenge is that all the slams are played on different surfaces.
The Australian Open is played on the acrylic surface, Rebound Ace, the French Open on red clay, Wimbledon on grass, and the US Open on the manufactured Deco Turf. While the synthetic surface at the first and last slams of the year might look similar to spectators, they are actually quite different. Deco Turf is faster and has a lower bounce than Rebound Ace, which has more cushioning and a different type of sand in the top paint.
The variety in surface has historically meant that players require different skill sets to go all the way at each event. On the spectrum of speed of play, grass and clay courts lie at opposite ends, which is why winning the French Open and Wimbledon back to back is also rare.
Over the years, we have watched serve and volley players thrilling fans by rushing the net and ending points quickly on grass and the fast courts of New York, while on clay, we have seen players slip and slide and play excellent defence and use topspin to beguile opponents. John McEnroe, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg won multiple titles at Wimbledon but failed at the French. On the other hand, clay court specialists from Spain and elsewhere have dominated on the slower courts but made early and ignominious exits at the All England Club.
Legends of the game, such as Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander, Pete Sampras, Edberg, Becker, and Jim Courier all failed to complete the career slam. Each of them stopped short at one particular slam, which ended up becoming an annoying Achilles Heel and, in the case of some, an obsession.
Lendl, who began by famously sneering, “Grass is for cows,” became so obsessed with winning Wimbledon towards the end of his career that he began to skip the French Open to prepare for it. Despite three final appearances, he failed to win the title, and was quoted saying that he would gladly give up all his other majors in exchange for one Wimbledon trophy. On the other hand, it was the slow red clay of Roland Garros that frustrated Becker, Edberg, and Connors. Archrivals Bjorn Borg and McEnroe won multiple titles, but only at two majors each.
Fans had to wait until 1999 to finally see someone complete the career slam at Roland Garros. It was unexpected for many reasons. Not only was the player 29 years old and a two-time losing finalist there, but it was an American playing a clay court specialist five years younger than him, and the American was down two sets to love.
When Andre Agassi became the first man since Don Budge to win the career slam, he was on the comeback trail, fresh from injury and divorce, a man known more for his wasted potential than dedication to the sport. It was this achievement that helped him salvage his crumbling career. It proved a turning point both in his professional and personal life, a moment he called “sheer destiny.”
A rush of Grand Slams
And then we have the last seven years. Since 2009, not one but three men have completed the sweep of majors. And, like Agassi, not one of them is a classic serve and volley player. Federer’s breakthrough came on grass, but he always had a more all-court game than his predecessors like Sampras or Edberg. He completed his career slam by winning the French Open in 2009, an emotional victory that he managed to sneak in the one year he didn’t have to face his Spanish nemesis.
Nadal was clearly a clay court specialist at the start of his career, but to his credit he adapted his game and learned new skills to do well on faster surfaces. He completed the career slam at the age of 24 by winning the US Open.
And Djokovic, who was not even part of the GOAT conversation just five years ago, perhaps made the greatest adjustments of all to his game and his mental and physical conditioning to climb past his biggest rivals. Each of them proved to be so dominant during their time that they could win anywhere. Each of them has taken turns promising to become the greatest player of all time. How fortunate are we all to have seen such greatness, such domination, not once but three times?
However, there might well be another reason why the career slam has recently seemed more attainable.
In 2001, the All England Club switched to one hundred percent perennial ryegrass to improve durability, which is rumoured to have made the courts slower. Frenchman Michael Llodra, a classic serve and volley player, made this shocking statement about Wimbledon a few years ago: “Year after year, the courts are getting worse. I prefer [the clay courts of] Roland Garros. [Court Philippe-Chatrier] and Court One there, when they are dry, are much faster.” Wait, what?
There’s more. In 2011, Federer complained about the lower speed of the courts at the US Open, which he claimed was impacted by the changed ratio of sand to paint. He said, “I think that maybe all the Slams are too equal. I think they should feel very different to the Australian Open, and now [here] I don't feel it really does…I'm not sure if it's really what the game needs.”
Notice that the people speaking up are ones who favour faster courts. The traditional baseliners do not seem to mind. ATP officials and ground staff at the different tournaments point to various factors that impact court speed, such as the weather. Some have admitted that their goal is to make the courts more similar for all players, to give more people a chance at winning.
Lost in uniformity
But doesn’t this come at a cost? Hasn’t tennis lost much of the diversity in style and skill that used to be the hallmark of some of the greatest rivalries in the sport?
Ask yourselves: when was the last time you saw a serve and volley player like McEnroe or Edberg win a Grand Slam? This is not to say that top players like Federer or Nadal or Djokovic cannot play well at the net. They can. But usually, they don’t have to.
Tennis has gradually been changing to encourage more long baseline rallies on all surfaces. The four grand slams may be becoming more and more uniform to play on, making it less improbable for a great champion to win all of them.
By no means should we trivialise in any way what Djokovic has accomplished. Like Federer and Agassi before him, Djokovic needed that one title in Paris to complete the set. All the expectations and the pressure from both the media and himself had built up the past couple of years, making us wonder if the French Open could somehow, inexplicably, elude him like Wimbledon had eluded Lendl.
When he finally cleared the last hurdle on the red clay on Sunday, doing what his coach Boris Becker was never able to do, his relief was plain to see. Djokovic has become the first person in 47 years to hold all four slams at the same time, which is proof of his utter domination of the men’s game at the moment. He has also put himself in a position to win the calendar grand slam this year. All the records are his for the taking.
But if you’re a fan of variety, of contrasting styles of tennis on the court, if you, like me, long for the thrilling contests where serve and volley players rush the net, challenging patient baseliners to pass them, the kind of duel engaged in by Borg and McEnroe or Lendl and Becker in the past, then you might be disappointed in the coming months. In in any case, with Novak Djokovic around, the results, like the tennis, are becoming predictable.
Oindrila Mukherjee tweets here.