Novak in NYC: '21 Slam, 21 Majors?

A timeline of Novak Djokovic's path to ultimate greatness

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FLASHBACK: How Djokovic rallied to defeat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the 2021 French Open final

Novak Djokovic is 34 years old, the winner of 85 professional tennis tournaments and a veteran of over 1100 matches. But at the moment he seems less tennis player than big wave surfer poised on the crest of all that experience as he tries to complete the ride of a lifetime at the US Open by accomplishing a calendar-year Grand Slam.

The most-prized records in tennis represent feats of endurance: most Grand Slam singles titles, most years as the year-end No. 1, and so forth. By contrast, a Grand Slam is accomplished in barely seven months. Each year only one player—the winner of the first Grand Slam event of the year, the Australian Open—is in a position to sweep all four major events of the year. But the same player has won all four Slams in one year only five times in the 100-plus years of Grand Slam tennis.

Three women have slammed grandly, and just two men. The last man to do it was Rod Laver, who did it twice—the first time as an amateur and, more impressively, as a pro in 1969. Only Laver and Steffi Graf completed Grand Slams in the Open Era.

Or look at it like this: Djokovic and rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal may be the greatest players who ever lived. They have a whopping 60 Grand Slam singles titles between them, yet this is the first time any of them has stood at the threshold of a Grand Slam.

Degree-of-difficulty? This is off the charts. But so is Djokovic lately, so here’s a timeline that may help you appreciate how he came to be in his current position:



Yugoslav tennis player Jelena Genčić discovers four-year old Novak Djokovic at Mount Kopaonik, where Djokovic's parents operated a fast-food restaurant. She would become his first coach and a major influence on his young life.

“We were very close throughout my whole life and she taught me a lot of things that are part of me, part of my character today,” Djokovic said after Gencic’s death in 2013. “Hopefully I will be able to continue with her legacy, because she left so much knowledge to me, to the people that were close to her.”


Gencic, realizing that by age 12 Djokovic has outgrown local competition and her coaching abilities. She arranges for him to move to the tennis academy of her compatriot Nikki Pilic in Germany. Within two years, Djokovic makes his international junior competition debut.


Djokovic plays his first match as a professional. Unranked, he loses his opening match in a German Futures event to Alex Radulescu, 7-5, 7-6 (5).


In the fall, Djokovic, then 18-years old, begins working with Italian elite coach Riccardo Piatti, who is coaching Ivan Ljubicic at the time. They split the following June when Piatti refused to drop Ljubicic and work exclusively with Djokovic. Ljubicic would have a solid career and became Roger Federer’s most recent coach.


Djokovic begins working with Marian Vajda, a Slovak coach who will become a close friend as he guides Djokovic for most of his career.

Under Vajda’s guidance, Djokovic makes his Grand Slam breakthrough at the French Open and triggers his first bout of controversy. After wins over, No. 9-ranked Fernando Gonzalez and seeds Tommy Haas and Gael Monfils, Djokovic, citing soreness in his back, retires from his quarterfinal while trailing Rafael Nadal, 6-4, 6-4.

Afterwards, Djokovic tells the press: "I was playing pretty well. I think I was in control. Even with a sore back I think I played equal. He’s not unbeatable, he’s beatable.”


Djokovic's 2006 Roland Garros run propelled him to the Top 40.

Djokovic's 2006 Roland Garros run propelled him to the Top 40.

Nadal doesn’t buy it. In his own presser he arches an eyebrow in surprise when Djokovic's words are repeated and says, ““Oh yes, I don’t know, if he say that, it’s okay, I don’t need to answer then.”

Meeting with British officials he will have serious, secret discussion to leave Serbia for the UK, in order to compete under the Union Jack in international competitions and the Olympic Games. But the talks peter out.


It’s a breakthrough year for Djokovic, owing partly to bringing physiotherapist Miljan Amanović on board. Amanovic had previously worked with NBA players and football team Red Star Belgrade. Like Vajda, he develops a close bond with the star player. Apart from an 18-month hiatus ending in the spring of 2019, he has been with the Serbian star ever since.

"It was always about [coach] Marian (Vajda) and [physical trainer] Gigi (Gebhard Phil-Gritsch) was my fitness coach, but I think never anyone asks me about him (Amanovic) , so I am really glad, thank you for that. . . It is very nice to have him because he's also one of my best friends, you know.”

In Miami, Djokovic logs his first win—in just their third meeting—over Rafael Nadal, and goes on to win his first Masters 1000 title. In Montreal in the summer, he defeats Nadal again, as well as Andy Roddick and—for the first time in five tries—Roger Federer. It is the first time since 1994 a player beats the ATP top three in the same tournament.

“Well, it's still a long way to the first place of the world for me,” Djokovic replies, when asked if he has learned what it takes to be No. 1, “I can't exactly say that I'm thinking about becoming a No. 1 next year, in two years. You know, I just try to keep my focus and do what I did till now: just stay on the right way.”


Federer and Nadal, one or the other, had won 11 consecutive Grand Slam titles going into the Australian Open, but Djokovic breaks their stranglehold as he powers to his first Grand Slam title. It’s a daunting assignment because his opponent is surprise finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

“Probably today I was a bit nervous on the start because I found myself in the strange situation, that I am the favorite in the finals of a Grand Slam, which is not usual for me” the 20-year old says after he wins. “So it was dangerous, but I managed to cope with the pressure well.”

Later in the year, Djokovic earns the bronze medal in singles at the Beijing Olympic Games, and closes the 2008 tour year by claiming the first of his five year-end ATP Tour championships.


Tsonga may have got the better of Djokovic the next three times they met in 2008, but the Serbian won the biggest prize of all: a piece of major hardware.

Tsonga may have got the better of Djokovic the next three times they met in 2008, but the Serbian won the biggest prize of all: a piece of major hardware.


During a Davis Cup tie in Serbia against Croatia, Djokovic meets and consults with Serbian nutritionist Dr Igor Cetojevic, a nutritionist who specializes in traditional Chinese and Indian medical practices. He discovers that Djokovic is allergic to gluten and joins the star’s team. His contribution would markedly improve Djokovic’s energy levels and fitness.

Later in the year, Serbia joins the select list of nations that has won the Davis Cup, thanks largely to Novak Djokovic’s 7-0 singles record against an impressive list of opponents including Marin Cilic, Tomas Berdych and Monfils. The win elevates Djokovic to national treasure status.


As the year begins, Djokovic still has just one Grand Slam title to his credit in 24 attempts, despite making the quarterfinals or better at 14 of those tournaments. It’s nothing to scoff at, given the quality of rivals like Federer, Nadal and surging Andy Murray. But this is the year that Djokovic will join them to constitute the vaunted “Big Four.” His career goes almost overnight to the next level.

After allowing Murray just nine games in the Australian Open final, Djokovic may not even know it, but he lays out the template that will last his entire career when he says:

“In some ways I felt today that I could get any ball and I could make a fast transition from being defensive to being offensive. I used the serve in crucial moments quite good. I was opening the court, serving wide, so I can have the other part of the court open for a winner. I was patient when I needed to be. You know, I was changing a lot of rhythm, changing pace, because I know that he likes more pace.”

Federer halts Djokovic’s progress in the semifinals of the French Open (Nadal wins it to tie Bjorn Borg’s record of five wins at Roland Garros), but Djokovic wins his third major at Wimbledon. He reaches the No. 1 ranking for the first time on the fourth of July.

In September at the US Open, Djokovic becomes just the sixth player to win three majors in the same year (something he will also do in 2015 and 2021).

“Throughout all my life I've been working, being committed to this sport 100%,” Djokovic says after throttling Nadal in the US Open final. “That's the only way you can really succeed. . .But this is something that I love to do, and it brings me joy every single time I step on the court and make a win. Nothing can replace that feeling.”

Djokovic also finishes the year with a record five ATP Masters 1000 titles. He is the year-end No. 1 player for the first time. His 70-6 W-L record is among the best in men’s tennis history.


At the 2011 US Open, Djokovic erased two match points against Federer for the second straight year before outclassing Nadal in the final.

At the 2011 US Open, Djokovic erased two match points against Federer for the second straight year before outclassing Nadal in the final.


Djokovic successfully defends his Australian Open title, defeating Rafael Nadal in an epic final 5–7, 6–4, 6–2, 6–7 (5), 7–5. The match lasts 5 hours and 53 minutes to become the longest match (in duration) in Grand history in the Open Era.


Djokovic wins a record third consecutive Australian Open title. “Every tournament, especially the major tournaments, is very special,” he says afterwards. “Adding to that the history part, winning three in a row, it's incredible.”


Two off-court developments loom large in Djokovic’s career and life. On July 10th, he marries his long-time girlfriend—and former high school pal—Jelena Ristic at the Aman Sveti Stefan resort in Montenegro.

In December Djokovic adds former great Boris Becker to his team as an additional coach. Wimbledon icon Becker will help Djokovic through the next three highly productive years.


Djokovic makes 15 consecutive finals and amasses a 23-match winning streak in what may be his best year yet. He becomes just the third man to reach all four Grand Slam finals in the same year - a “Finals Grand Slam.” His only stumble is a loss to Stanislas Wawrinka in the French Open final.

With his win over Federer in the Wimbledon final, Djokovic moves ahead in their head-to-head rivalry for the first time, 22-21. After the win, he says:

“It’s so fresh that it's hard for me to gather all the thoughts and take out the impression and just sincere feeling of what I have achieved right now.

I'm extremely proud. It's a huge relief. That's the first feeling that I will feel after the tournament. Whether I'm winning it or losing it, in finals, or whenever I finish, it's just a huge relief.”

He ends the year on another high note, besting Federer at the ATP Finals to finish the year 82-6, his best annual W-L.


Ten years after his breakout run at Roland Garros, Djokovic triumphed at the Paris major for the first time to complete a career Grand Slam.

Ten years after his breakout run at Roland Garros, Djokovic triumphed at the Paris major for the first time to complete a career Grand Slam.


A win in Doha puts Djokovic ahead of Nadal in their rivalry for the first time, 24-23. It is an omen. Months later he wins the French Open, albeit without having to face the King of Clay at the tournament he dominates, to complete a career Grand Slam.

The win also makes Djokovic the first male player since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold all four major titles at once (a non-calendar year Grand Slam) - and the only one in history to accomplish that on three different surfaces.

However, the epic achievement leaves him drained of motivation, and unspecified struggles in his off-court life send him spiraling into what would be the only real significant of his career. He loses in the third round at Wimbledon. Although he reaches the US Open final, he loses his second major final to the Swiss strongman, Wawrinka.

In December, Djokovic also splits with Becker, citing the need to “take a break.”


In full-blown crisis mode, Djokovic also struggles with an elbow injury that requires surgery and drops as low as No. 22 by the time of the French Open, the scene of his last great triumph. Reuniting with Vajda after trying to go it alone - and sort out his feelings - for about 18 months, Djokovic begins a resurgence that results in a win at Wimbledon. It’s his fourth Wimbledon title and 13th major.

Looking back on his struggles, Djokovic says: “There were several moments where I was frustrated and angry, questioning whether I can get back to the desired level or not. But that makes this whole journey even more special for me. [The slump] helped me, not just as a tennis player, but just as a human being, to get to know myself on deeper levels.”

In August, Djokovic completes a “career golden Masters Grand Slam,” by winning the last of the nine Masters titles (the Cincinnati Masters 1000) that has eluded him.


In a one-sided affair, Djokovic blitzed Nadal, 6–3, 6–2, 6–3, to clinch the 2019 Australian Open title.

In a one-sided affair, Djokovic blitzed Nadal, 6–3, 6–2, 6–3, to clinch the 2019 Australian Open title.


Djokovic wins the Australian Open and Wimbledon to bring his Grand Slam singles title haul to 16, within striking distance of Nadal (18 at that time) and Federer (20). Daring to go where Federer and Nadal won’t, he boldly tells reporters at the US Open that finishing his career with the most Grand Slam titles of any man is not merely a fantasy but an “ambition.”

His exact words: “It does also put a certain level of responsibility to me as well, because I am, you know, aiming to do that. You know, it's definitely one of my ambitions and goals, if you want.”

Nadal’s win in New York foils Djokovic and puts a little more valuable real estate between them.


Djokovic leads Serbia to a win in the inaugural ATP Cup, and bumps his record Australian title haul to eight. But then the pandemic hits and forces the postponement of the French Open and the outright cancellation of Wimbledon, denying Djokovic the opportunity to defend his title.

Djokovic, a heavy favorite to win the US Open with Federer, Nadal and others absent due to the pandemic, is defaulted from his fourth-round match for inadvertently striking a line judge in the throat with a ball smacked out of his own way in anger.

Weeks later, competing in the postponed Italian Open, Djokovic bags a record 36th Masters 1000 crown. He finishes the year at No. 1 for a sixth time, tying the record of Pete Sampras.


With a ninth Australian Open title, Djokovic moves to within two of Federer and Nadal, each of whom has 20.

In March, by finishing on top of the ATP rankings for a 311th week, Djokovic surpasses the previous record held by Federer. The rankings system has been in operation for 48 years.

Nadal suffers just the third French Open loss of his career (against 105 wins) at the hands of Djokovic in the semifinals, with the winner then overcoming Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final for major No. 19.


Even at last: Djokovic's 2021 Wimbledon triumph put him in position to move ahead of Federer and Nadal for the first time in the major race, and earn a shot at completing an ultra rare calendar-year Grand Slam.

Even at last: Djokovic's 2021 Wimbledon triumph put him in position to move ahead of Federer and Nadal for the first time in the major race, and earn a shot at completing an ultra rare calendar-year Grand Slam.

Djokovic secures major No. 20 to fall into a tie with his two main rivals with a win over Matteo Berrettini in the final of Wimbledon. Asked what area he has improved in the most, he says: “Just the ability to cope with pressure. The more you play the big matches, the more experience you have. The more experience you have, the more you believe in yourself. The more you win, the more confident you are. It's all connected.”

At the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Djokovic miscalculates and enters the mixed doubles along with the singles. Fatigue from the compressed schedule and debilitating heat play a role in Alexander Zverev’s upset of Djokovic in the semifinals. He then suffers an unexpected loss to Pablo Carreno Busta in the bronze medal match. Exhausted, bitterly disappointed, he also pulls out of the mixed doubles and leaves Tokyo empty-handed.

Later in the month, Djokovic pulls out of his final tune-up event before the US Open, the Cincinnati Masters 1000. The world waits.