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Novak Djokovic, vaxxed or not, was the best of 2021 – Twin Cities



The three tallest men to occupy any sport at any time have parted ways.

Novak Djokovic is the last man standing.

He was the world’s most essential athlete in 2021, for contradictory reasons. As Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal began to recognize the actuarial realities, Djokovic won the Australian, French and Wimbledon men’s singles titles and got to the final of the U.S. Open in his audacious bid to win all four Slams in the same year.


There Djokovic ran into the brilliance of Daniil Medvedev and lost in straight sets, after a difficult run in which he lost the first set five times.

“Most of the time the fans have pulled for his opponent,” said Brad Gilbert, a former world-class player and coach and for years a TV analyst. “In New York, you noticed that the crowd had finally gotten behind him. People recognized how amazing it was, what he was doing.”

Djokovic, 34, ended the year as the world’s No. 1 player for the seventh time, a record. Medvedev was second, Nadal sixth, Federer 16th. The Joker has been No. 1 for 353 consecutive weeks, also a record.

“The guys who will challenge him now aren’t necessarily Rafa and Fed,” Gilbert said. “He’s going to have to hold off a younger generation, guys like Medvedev, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

“But he’s better than he’s ever been. I remember seeing him at the French as a 17-year-old and watching him win the first 10 games. The athleticism was there, but the serve was the last thing to come around. When it did, he was almost unstoppable.”


Federer’s first Slam victory was Wimbledon, 2003. Andy Roddick then won the U.S. Open. No American has won a Slam since, and the highest-ranking American men are Taylor Fritz (23), John Isner (24) and Reilly Opelka (26).

Actually, there are six Americans in the Top 50, equaled only by Spain. So maybe the pickleball takeover is still years away.

Anyway, there have been 75 Slam tournaments since the beginning of 2004 and either Federer, Djokovic or Nadal has won 62 of them.

Djokovic got to 20 this year, even though his first wasn’t until 2008. He has held four Slam trophies once (in 2015-16), has won them all at least twice and is the only man to beat Nadal twice at the French Open.

“That’s the hardest thing to do in sports, not just tennis,” said Paul Annacone, a renowned coach and former player.


Nadal played only two more matches in 2021 after he lost to Djokovic. Federer, 40, is coming off knee surgery. No sane person can doubt Federer’s capability at Wimbledon or Nadal’s at the French, but Djokovic has “a clear window,” as Gilbert said, to extend his Slams total to untouchable lengths.

“It’s like he is controlled by a joystick,” said Diego Schwartzman, a Top 20 player from Argentina. “In the end, you cannot keep up with him.”

There were others:

TOM BRADY: He showed his general manager skills by signing with the talented Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Then he became the key ingredient in their second Super Bowl victory and his seventh.

CONNOR McDAVID: Team success has eluded the Edmonton Oilers center, but McDavid crammed 105 points into a 56-game season and won the Hart Trophy (MVP). He assisted or scored on 56.7 percent of the Oilers’ goals, an NHL record.


NICK SABAN: Alabama’s rout of Ohio State in the College Football Playoff final gave Saban his third CFP championship and his seventh overall. His record is 268-66-1 overall and 177-24 overall. The current Crimson Tide team is back in the CFP, beginning Friday.

KARSTEN WARHOLM: The Norwegian electrified the Tokyo Olympics with a 45.94 time in the 400-meter hurdles, breaking his world record by more than .75 seconds. Rai Benjamin of USC and the U.S. won silver at 46.17, which also broke Warholm’s previous record. The race was accurately described as the best in the history of the discipline.

MAX VERSTAPPEN: On the final lap of the final race of the Formula One season, the 24-year-old Dutchman passed Lewis Hamilton to win the championship. There was controversy over the one-lap dash following a caution, but Verstappen never finished lower than second place in the races he finished and won the title by eight points.

All those events bore the marks of COVID-19, and Djokovic did not escape. He has consistently refused to say if he’s vaccinated. The Australian Open, which he has won nine times, is requiring vaccinations, but authorities have hinted they will loosen the requirements for Djokovic.

This would not make Djokovic easier to like. As usual, he must win hearts with his tennis, which seems likely.


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