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Tennis Has Likely Seen Its Last Ever Calendar Grand Slam
- Updated: September 30, 2015
Even with the lack of parity in tennis these days, neither Serena Williams nor Novak Djokovic, who combined to win six of the available eight major titles on the men and women’s sides, were able to accomplish the grandest feat of them all, showcasing why the calendar grand slam may never be pulled off again.
In 2015, the tennis universe came extremely close to seeing not one but two calendar grand slams, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Steffi Graf back in 1988, and one that has only been achieved a total of six times in the sport’s long and storied history.
Serena Williams, the most talked about name in tennis last season, entered the final major of the year, the US Open, in possession of all four titles, marking her second so-called “Serena Slam,” the first of which came back in 2002-03. Since that time, no one had held all four majors until this past year, when Williams tied the record of Graf and Rod Laver, in having accomplished that feat twice in a career.
Entering the US Open, Williams was the clear favorite and it wasn’t even close. Despite having worked her way in and out of jams quite frequently over the course of her second Serena Slam run, Williams still proved to be the best player in the draw. Her odds (-125) were astronomical, leaps and bounds above the second and third best marks of Victoria Azarenka (+800) and Maria Sharapova (+900), a duo that Williams holds a 35-5 record against. Needless to say, and Vegas sure felt this way, it was Williams’ to lose.
In the semi-finals, against Roberta Vinci, an opponent she had never lost to in their four prior meetings, Williams was shocked in a three-set upset, one that many in the tennis community were calling one of the biggest in history. Unlike most of her previous three-set thrillers, Williams actually won her first set, before dropping the final two.
Williams had a clear path to the finals and to adding her name to the exclusive list of six, but she fell just short. However, by losing in the semi-finals, Williams actually finished the year as coming the second closest to the calendar grand slam. The honor of being the closest goes to Novak Djokovic, who was looking to accomplish on the men’s side, something not seen since Laver’s remarkable second time doing so, back in 1969.
Djokovic did not enter the US Open with the prospect of making history the way Williams did. While he had been victorious in the Australian Open for the fifth time in his career and Wimbledon for the third time, he lost in the finals of the French Open in between. For Djokovic, this meant another year gone by that the elusive clay court title was not his to have. As it stands, it is the only one of the four majors Djokovic has yet to win.
So entering the US Open, all that was on the line for the 28-year-old in the prime of his career, was winning three of the four majors, something he hadn’t done since the 2011 season. In doing so, Djokovic would also be claiming his 10th title, his ninth since 2011.
Unlike Williams, Djokovic did manage to hoist the trophy at the US Open, for just the second time in his career, again, first since 2011, by defeating Roger Federer in a four-set final. In doing so, Djokovic had reached the finals in each of the four majors in the 2015 calendar year for the first time in his career.
Winning three of the four slams and having reached the finals in all of them is a rare feat in and of itself however. Of course Laver did it in accomplishing his two calendar grand slams and Don Budge in his one, but in the Open Era, of those with at least five major titles, that includes Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl, Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, etc, only Roger Federer, who reached eight straight finals in a two year stretch of winning all but the French, had achieved that distinction before Djokovic joined him this year.
Federer was in his prime then, winning majors at a torrid pace and soaring to the top of the record books. But for as good as the 17-time major winner was, he still had a kryptonite and its name was Nadal at the French.
Nadal has won a record nine titles at Roland Garros including two that prevented Federer from the calendar grand slam in back to back years. In fact, it wasn’t until Nadal fell in the fourth round in 2009, the first time since 2005 and what would be the only time in the past 10 seasons (05-14) that he didn’t reach the finals, that Federer, who didn’t have to face him, won his first and only French Open title.
For Djokovic, the narrative has been much of the same. He has reached the finals at the French three times, all but once losing to Nadal, the anointed “King of Clay.”
But in 2015, Nadal, who has long had problems with his knees, suffered his worst career year in some time. Nadal failed the win a major for the first time since 2005, as he lost in the quarterfinals at the Australian, lost shockingly in the quarterfinals of the French, and didn’t make it past the third round of either Wimbledon or the US Open.
Nadal’s future in the game and his ability to still perform at a high level is in doubt and in question, but then again, so was Williams’ the first time she failed to win a single major back in 2011. It is quite possible Nadal, still only 29, comes back reinvigorated and as good as ever as Williams has. It’s also quite possible though, that like I believe is the case for Federer, the Spaniard has won his last major.
Let’s assume the latter is the case. Without Nadal, it would seem nothing and no one can stand in the way of Djokovic matching Laver and Budge’s feat. However, this isn’t the case. Nadal or not, the last three men to go for the calendar grand slam have seen their pursuit end at the French, the true wildcard of them all.
There is something different about a clay court surface that seems to affect even the best players. Sampras (14 majors), Connors (8) and Becker (6), never even made the finals at Roland Garros while McEnroe (7) and Stefan Edberg (6) were just one win away from getting their career grand slams. In fact, not counting Nadal’s 14 majors and nine French Open crowns, of the 112 majors won by the 14 men with at least five each in the Open Era, only 15 of these have come on the tour’s only clay court slam. Unsurprisingly, of that same list, six of the eight players who finished their career just one major shy of the career grand slam, did so because of the failure to win the French.
And it is the French that is going to continue to be the reason why Djokovic nor any other men’s player currently on tour, ever wins the calendar grand slam. It is too unpredictable and given that some of the best have never managed to win it, doesn’t bode well for the rest.
The thing is, Djokovic is the hands-down, undisputed, best player on the tour, best player in tennis right now. He very well could top Federer’s record 17 majors, he very well could get his first French and his career grand slam. But the calendar slam won’t happen and given the lack of parity in men’s and women’s tennis, it just goes to show you how difficult and how rare a feat it actually is.
Williams had the best shot of any player, male or female, and she came up short. For all the talk of lack of parity in the men’s game, it is even worse in the women’s. Right now, Williams is the lone dominant force. One could argue a case for Azarenka or even Sharapova but given their just five total wins in 40 matches against Williams, it’s hard to say that as good as they are, they could even be considered a threat. At least in the men’s game, there seems to be some level of competition among the top three to four, even if Djokovic has the clear edge.
Entering the 2016 season, all eyes will once again be on Williams and Djokovic. The pair are likely to be odds-on favorites in each of the majors or at the very least, three of the four. We could very well see another year that finishes with the two bests in the world at the top of the pinnacle, doing so as winners of two, maybe even three majors yet again. They are just that good and the field is just that far behind.
But for as good as they are, the calendar slam is even better. It’s the holy grail of tennis and given the way the game has changed, it’s probably as unlikely to be seen ever again as it would be to see Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak matched.
Williams and Djokovic are good, but they’re not that good.