By Howard Fendrich
AP Tennis Writer
Novak Djokovic has accomplished so much in his career — and, indeed, already this year.
He owns 12 Grand Slam singles titles, a total eclipsed by only three men in the long history of tennis. He has won four consecutive major tournaments, something only two other men ever did. He leads the tour in wins (44-3 record) and titles (six) in 2016.
Now, with Wimbledon starting Monday, there is something more for Djokovic to pursue, something never achieved by a man and only once by a woman: a Golden Slam, consisting of winning all four major singles titles, plus an Olympic singles gold medal, in one season. As it is, Djokovic is halfway to a true Grand Slam, collecting championships on the hard courts of the Australian Open in January, then the red clay of the French Open earlier this month.
Among men, only Don Budge in 1938, and Rod Laver in 1962 and 1969, managed to win all four Grand Slam tournaments within a calendar year (none of those were Summer Games years and, anyway, tennis was not part of the Olympics in those days).
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure on him,” Laver said about Djokovic, adding: “For me, I think it’s very possible he can pull it off.”
When he won his first French Open title this month to become the first man since Jim Courier in 1992 to even get halfway to a calendar-year Grand Slam, Djokovic certainly did not try to play down the possibility of equaling Laver’s achievement.
“Well, I don’t want to sound arrogant,” Djokovic said after extending his Grand Slam winning streak to 28 matches, “but I really think everything is achievable in life.”
Why shouldn’t he feel that way?
At 29, he is probably at his peak, as close to unbeatable as there is these days, possessing the best return of serve in the game, an unparalleled ability to contort his body and track down opponents’ apparent winners while going from defense to offense in a blink, and an improving serve.
And from match to match, surface to surface, Djokovic rarely wavers.
“People are starting to respect him more and more,” said seven-time major champion John McEnroe, part of ESPN’s broadcast team at the All England Club, “(and) to see the astronomical level of consistency he’s had, incredible success week in and week out.”
Djokovic has participated in the past six Grand Slam finals, a run surpassed only by Roger Federer in the Open era.
Djokovic also is gaining on another, more revered, mark: Federer’s 17 Grand Slam titles. Next on the all-time list are Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras, with 14 apiece.
“He’s there, for sure — one of the best now,” said Marian Vajda, who co-coaches Djokovic alongside Boris Becker. “Hard to say who’s the greatest. But according to the Grand Slams, he is getting close to Federer and Nadal.”
At Wimbledon, Djokovic won’t see Nadal, out with an injured left wrist. Federer is finally, at 34, showing signs of age, including missing the French Open to end a record streak of 65 consecutive majors. This is also the first time since 2000 that Federer heads to the All England Club without having won any ATP title all season.
At this point, the top-ranked Djokovic’s most serious challenger has to be No. 2 Andy Murray, the man he beat in the finals at both the Australian Open and French Open this year. Murray has reached 10 Grand Slam finals, winning only two, but both victories did come against Djokovic.
Murray also has reunited with Ivan Lendl, his coach when he won an Olympic gold medal (at the All England Club) and the U.S. Open in 2012, and Wimbledon a year later.
Still, Djokovic has the momentum and ability to take aim at a truly historic season, including the chance to win his first Olympic gold medal at the Rio de Janeiro Games in August.
Steffi Graf collected the only Golden Slam in 1988, and the world saw in 2015 just how much pressure and attention Serena Williams dealt with as she came within two match wins of the first calendar-year Grand Slam since then.
Williams hasn’t won a major since getting her fourth in a row at Wimbledon last year to raise her career count to 21, one short of Graf’s Open-era record.
“Something is holding her back,” said 18-time major champion Chris Evert, now an ESPN analyst, “and it could be nerves.”