The likelihood of Novak Djokovic winning a calendar Grand Slam grow stronger as the day’s progress in Flushing Meadows fuelling the Serb’s confidence at achieving that target for the first time since 1969, as his latest victim can testify.
After I won in Paris this year, I felt like, 'OK, I like my chances on grass, I won two Wimbledons in a row, I've improved over the years on grass - it did not seem impossible anymore to go for all four in a row in the same year Novak Djokovic
The world number one is now four matches away from matching the only male player to have scored a calendar Grand Slam, namely Australia’s Rod Laver who has in fact, done it twice.
The players who could prevent him from entering the record books are sixth seed Matteo Berrettini in the quarter-finals (at which stage he defeated the Italian at Wimbledon), the German Olympic champion and fourth seed Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals and Russian second seed Daniil Medvedev in the final in what would be a rematch of the Australian Open final.
However, to make the last eight, he has to first get past a local youngster, Jenson Brooksby, a 20-year-old American wildcard who has captured the home crowd’s hearts.
On Saturday Djokovic moved to the day session in his match against Japan’s Kei Nishikori who had stunned him back at the 2014 US Open, but since then, had lost 16 consecutive matches.
And that trend of losses continued for the Japanese former world number four and US Open finalist, despite snatching the first set in their third round clash, for Djokovic then gained control to post his third win of the championships, 6-7(4) 6-3 6-3 6-2 after three hours and 32-minutes.
“It was a tough battle,” Djokovic said. “So far the toughest match of the tournament for me. The opening two rounds obviously felt well, played good. But the pace of the ball and the speed of Nishikori’s tennis today was just higher than the opening two rounds’ opponents that I had.
“I thought he played great. He didn’t give me much time. He wanted to make me uncomfortable and defensive, and he managed to do that. I felt like (uncomfortable) for maybe a set, set and a half.
“Once I adapted to the pace of his ball, I felt better on the court. I felt like I’m starting to gain the momentum and control of the match. Served well when I needed to. When I was up, I just kept pushing and kept applying pressure on his service games.”
When reminded of his Grand Slam goal, Djokovic said he was in a “good position” to complete it and reflected on the road to that target, declaring that when he pocketed the French Open – which he describes as his “Mount Everest” – he knew a calendar slam was possible.
“After I won in Paris this year, I felt like, ‘OK, I like my chances on grass, I won two Wimbledons in a row, I’ve improved over the years on grass – it did not seem impossible anymore to go for all four in a row in the same year,” Djokovic recollected.
“So here I am. I’m in a good position to do that. Still in the tournament. But I’ve got to take one match at a time.
“Probably the greatest Grand Slam career satisfaction I had is when I won four in a row back in 2016 when I crowned it with the first Roland Garros trophy,” Djokovic continued remembering his career Grand Slam – consecutive majors but not all in the same season.
“Even though I grew up playing on clay, I feel like Roland Garros has always been probably the Mount Everest for me. Out of all four Slams, that was the toughest for me to win.
“Both 2016 and this year’s French Open win feel kind of similar. I felt if I win Roland Garros in that year, I have a good chance to maybe do it all in same year, calendar Slam.”
And Nishikori, following his 18th defeat at the hands of the world number one, confirmed that there seemed to be no pressure on the Serb’s game.
“I’d say he was the same,” Nishikori said. “Maybe he’s feeling that inside, a lot of pressure, but I couldn’t see during the match.”
In theory, Djokovic should be able to brush aside his next opponent, but the youngster is producing some excellent tennis and is surprising everyone.
To make the fourth round, Jenson Brooksby, ranked 99, beat the Australian Open semi-finalist from Russia, Aslan Karatsev, the 21st seed who was celebrating his 28th birthday, 6-2 3-6 2-6 6-3 6-3 to record the first five-set victory of his career having earlier in the week, dispatched Sweden’s Mikael Ymer and compatriot Taylor Fritz.
“I’m proud of battling my adversity, whether it’s my own head or what’s going on out there on the court,” the 20-year-old Brooksby said. “I mean, today was a battle obviously. I don’t know how long it was, but I thought I started out solid. Good first set. Still a couple things I could have done better.
“The break in the second. I just lost the mental energy way too much in the second set and third set. That’s not really easy to come back from, but I just told myself to keep staying in the present moment, keep breathing, keep staying positive, focus on what I’m working on out there.”
And for his meeting with Djokovic, he will have to do all that and more!
“It will be a great challenge,” Brooksby admitted. “One of the toughest there can be. But I’m really believing in myself with what I’m showing out there so far. I got a great team around me to help me recover tomorrow. Yeah, I go out there to battle again on I’m sure Ashe probably, I would assume.
“That will be really exciting. I’m sure it will be a full crowd. I’m excited to see how well I can focus, see how well I can play with one of the biggest challenges and with one of the biggest crowds in a court that you can get.”
While Djokovic’s main challengers in his half of the draw, remain on course in the hope of claiming their first major titles, he isn’t making light of Brooksby. “(He) is one of the players the locker room talks about quite often because of his talent. Hopefully I can be at my best,” he said as Matteo Berrettini came through a five setter while Alexander Zverev benefited from a retirement.
The sixth seeded Italian battled past Belarussian Ilya Ivashka 6-7(5) 6-2 6-4 2-6 6-3 while Zverev, the fourth seed was leading 3-6 6-2 6-3 2-1 when Jack Sock of the US retired with a groin injury having become the first player this week to take a set off the German.
Zverev faces Jannik Sinner, the Italian 13th seed, who ended entertaining Frenchman Gael Monfils’ challenge 7-6(1) 6-2 4-6 4-6 6-4 while Berrettini takes on a qualifier from Germany, Oscar Otte, who stopped another Italian, the veteran Andreas Seppi 6-3 6-4 2-6 7-5.
Finally, the American giant Reilly Opelka cruised into the fourth round with a straight set win over Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilishvili 7-6(5) 6-3 6-4 and the seventh seed from Canada, Denis Shapovalov was upset in straight sets by South African Lloyd Harris 6-4 6-4 6-4.