It’s easy to point to Novak Djokovic’s participation in the Tokyo Games as a no-brainer. After all, he’s conscious of his place in history, and, having won the first three major tournaments, he has in his hands an opportunity to claim an ultra-rare Golden Slam in an Olympic year. Only living legend Steffi Graf has managed to accomplish it, breezing through upending the competition in each of the sport’s premier events as well as in Seoul. All stars aligned for her in 1988; she was at her peak then, and she took advantage of the fact that tennis was back in the quadrennial meet for the first time in 64 years. And all stars seem to align for him as well, what with the pandemic postponing competition for another summer — just when he’s also at his peak and with the other top condensers sidelined.
The flipside, of course, is that the spread of the novel coronavirus in Japan and the stringent safety protocols being implemented as a result have made things doubly hard for Djokovic. Forget about the strength — or peck thereof — of the field. He didn’t decide to join the Olympics until the weekend because, his status as the prohibitive favorite notwithstanding, at the top of his mind is the sacrifice he would need to make simply to show up. Nothing in tennis is etched in stone, and especially with no spectators from which he routinely draws inspiration. As he himself noted, “I am not overjoyed about playing with no fans present or about the various coronavirus restrictions effective in Japan.”
So what made Djokovic decide to throw his proverbial hat in the ring? “It came down to patriotism and my feelings for Serbia,” he said, recounting a conversation he had with Croatian Olympic medalist Blanka Vlasic. “She said that people will only remember who won the medals, not what the conditions were like or whether there were any fans or not.” Precisely, and should he thrive in Tokyo, he will be four-fifths into providing fuel for the argument that he’s the sport’s greatest of all time. First things first, though, and he’s obviously willing to put in the work on the court and off to separate himself from contemporaries Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
To be sure, Djokovic doesn’t have a stellar record in the Olympics. He lost in the semifinals to Nadal (2008) and Andy Murray (2012), and his most recent foray in the Games was a one-and-done effort against Juan Martin Del Potro (2016). His record of futility, however, is precisely what underscored the need for him to grab the chance at immortality. He’s the only player to have all nine Masters trophies on his mantel, and he already has the Davis Cup hardware. How could he pass up his date with destiny? Sure, there’s a risk to his plan; the hoops he has to go through in Tokyo could even derail his quest for the United States Open crown. Nonetheless, he understands that the bigger sin lies not in his having tried and failed, but in his not having tried at all.