COLUMN: Novak Djokovic may have to sacrifice another Wimbledon for Olympic gold

Novak Djokovic needed on-court medical treatment against Francisco Cerundolo, and had to withdraw from his French Open quarter-final against Casper Ruud. Photo: AFP

Novak Djokovic needed on-court medical treatment against Francisco Cerundolo, and had to withdraw from his French Open quarter-final against Casper Ruud. Photo: AFP

Published Jun 8, 2024



Of the two defending champions, Iga Swiatek and Novak Djokovic, presiding over Roland Garros, both of whom are reigning No 1s – and lest we forget, receive equal pay for their respective French Open titles – one has completely eclipsed the other in terms of entertainment value.

Swiatek, since narrowly escaping defeat in her opening match against former No 1 Naomi Osaka, has sliced through Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova and US Open champion Coco Gauff like a hot knife through butter, averaging one-and-a-half hours on court.

In comparison, Djokovic, 13 years older and with 24 Grand Slam singles titles in his back pocket, has had to grind it out in two consecutive marathon five-setters, thrilling packed crowds in the night sessions on Court Philippe-Chatrier against Italy’s younger and fitter Lorenzo Musetti and Argentinian danger-man Francisco Cerundolo until 3am.

As Mark Woodforde, an 11-time doubles Slam champion and by far the best commentator, by virtue of his accumulative tennis acumen, succinctly put it: “These late hours are by no means ideal for players.”

Neither, apparently, were the court conditions, which Djokovic renounced after falling and injuring his knee: “I’m telling you, this (court surface) is not okay!” he yelled at tournament director Amelie Mauresmo.

That said, the GOAT played on and miraculously, as great champions do, dug himself out of a two-set deficit to win.

However, the surface and the gruelling time spent on it ultimately resulted in a torn meniscus, not only preventing him from continuing into the quarter-finals, but depriving him of his entrenched pole-position status.

World No 2 Jannik Sinner is now guaranteed to become World No 1 on Monday.

The 22-year-old will be the first Italian and only the 29th player ever to ascend to the top of men’s tennis: “What can I say... it’s every player’s dream.

“But in another way, seeing Novak retiring here is disappointing.”

Sinner’s understatement reverberates because as much as he deserves this accolade, it’s a Pyrrhic victory, handed to him on a silver platter by default.

A small consolation for Djokovic is that he has now equalled fellow GOAT Roger Federer’s record for the most match wins in majors.

Moreover, what Djokovic really wants more than yet another title, or a longer reign as No 1 – of which he is already the longest reigning – is an Olympic gold medal.

As serious as this injury appears to be, he may have to sacrifice another opportunity to win Wimbledon to guarantee himself a shot at first prize at the Paris Olympics.

Meanwhile, the man who has already grabbed an Olympic gold, but not a single major title, fourth seed Alexander Zverev, may be on his way to finally breaking the drought.

The German No 1, like Djokovic, has had to fight back from the brink of defeat, in third- and fourth-round five-setters totalling over eight hours to reach the semi-finals, where he has been beaten three times before in this arena – and like Djokovic, picked up a brutal knee injury.

The challenge then confronting Zverev in yesterday’s semi-final was that he was pitted against two-time Roland Garros finalist Casper Ruud, who was equally desperate in his own quest to win a major.

Zverev eventually triumphed in four sets: 2-6 6-2 6-4 6-2.

As for the other last men standing on the other side of the semi-final draw yesterday, No 2 and 3, Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz, the world had been eagerly awaiting a clash between these next-gen stars, especially as neither played in Rome.

They didn’t disappoint in providing more explosive entertainment than in their last-eight showdowns, in which hitherto dominant Stefanos Tsitsipas and first-time quarter-finalists Grigor Dimitrov and Alex de Minaur collectively collapsed faster than soldiers on Omaha Beach during D-Day landings.

Alcaraz survived a five-set thriller yesterday, holding off Sinner 2-6 6-3 3-6 6-4 6-3.