Monday, August 15, 2011

A Season in the Sun

by Conroy

An exuberant Djokovic after his latest title
Novak Djokovic had a golden opportunity at the French Open in 2008. On a sun-drenched Friday afternoon he faced three-time defending champion Rafael Nadal in a much anticipated semi-final. Win and he would pass the Spainard in the rankings and have a chance to play for his second grand slam title that year. He was a hot player, hard on the heels of Nadal (one year his senior) and perennial number one Roger Federer. He had that "lean and hungry look" as Caesar would say.

The match was intense. The rallies were long and hard. Novak fought, he had stretches of brilliant play, but as the rallies played out and the match wore on, the reality was clear to see on the shadowless court under the midday sun, there was no place for Novak Djokovic to hide; he was no equal to Nadal. He lost 6-4, 6-2, 7-6. He was supposed to emerge as a new contender for number 1. Instead he faded back. As grand slams went by one-by-one he seemed to  get used to being the third wheel in the captivating Federer-Nadal battle of greatness. It played that way right through last year's U.S. Open final. It seemed like it could play that way forever. Or at least that's what we all thought, until this year.


A Season in the Sun
Flash forward to yesterday. I watched Novak Djokovic, the newly crowned number 1 player, continue his nearly flawless, and well, awesome season in Montreal. He beat Mardy Fish, the top-ranked American (and big tournament bridesmaid), in the final of the Canada Masters event. He became the first number 1 player to win his first tournament after ascending to the top ranking since Pete Sampras 18 years ago. He wasn't at his sharpest and Fish was game, but it didn't matter, there's no stopping the Serb at the moment. It was his ninth title out of ten tournaments played in 2011. His record for the year is a hard-to-believe 53-1 (0.981 winning percentage in case you're interested).

The win yesterday was his fifth this year at a "1,000 level" event (you get 1,000 ranking points for winning), the tier just below the four grand slam tournaments. No one had ever won more than four in a single season before (Federer and Nadal each won four in 2005 and Federer won four more in 2006 - there are nine played each year).

Djokovic celebrating his Wimbledon championship
Oh yeah, and let's not forget that Novak is also this year's Australian Open and Wimbledon champion. Five times he stepped on court versus the then top ranked player, Rafael Nadal. Five times he came away the winner, including a paradigm shifting win in the Wimbledon final. He's won on hard courts (29-0), grass (7-0), and clay (17-1). He's beaten the other Top 10 players like a drum, amassing an eye-popping 16-1 record against that distinguished group. I wrote a couple of months ago about his only loss, to Federer - maybe the greatest player ever - in the semi-finals of the French Open (Roland Garros). And that took one of Roger's greatest ever clay court performances.

Before that loss Djokovic got a lot of press by winning his first 41 matches of the year. He's doing things on the court I can honestly say I've never seen anyone do. His neutralizing or even offensive shots from seemingly hopeless defensive positions are incomparable. His speed is amazing and his flexibility seems inhuman. He's a wall you can't hit around or through. He's rarely been down, but when he has his composure and mental fortitude have made even super-competitor Rafael Nadal fold. He's the first player ever to undermine the psyche of the Spanish champion. He's reached the rare status of the player who seems unbeatable.

In fact, his season has evolved to the point where fans, commentators, maybe even other players, are no longer asking how he's playing so well or if he can keep his level up, but just watching in wonder. During ESPN's coverage of the final match yesterday, commentators Chris Fowler, Darren Cahill, and Brad Gilbert had all but conceded that the Serb's season is the best by a male tennis player - ever. In fact they were seeking analogs in other sports, Tiger Woods in 2000, Michael Phelps in Beijing. Ed McGrogan echoed the idea that Djokovic was in the midst of the Greatest Season of All Time on his blog today. (More on this below.)

What brought about this profound change? Diet, technique, maturity, a reset mental attitude. All seemingly. I wrote back in the spring about Djokovic's emergence. About the apparent change in the tennis landscape. I thought maybe his run would take him to more titles and the number 1 ranking. I had no idea that he would continue to dominate as he has. Whatever the reason, it's great to see, and personally I'm rooting for the Serb. He's played in the shadows for a long time and as a tennis fan it's enjoyable to see someone reach their potential and take the sport to a new level. Gone are the days when Novak lamented coming of age in the era of Federer and Nadal, those days like that French Open semi-final where he just fell short. I don't know if the Federer or Nadal eras are gone for good (probably not), but the Djokovic era is definitely here.

(It's fun to see a new tennis personality break-out in the wider public consciousness as Novak has this summer, see Djokovic's pretty entertaining appearances on Leno and Conan.)


The Greatest Season?
Now about the best season of all time. Well I've heard this song before. Didn't we just hear this claim bandied about last year regarding Rafael Nadal's great season? How about all those great Federer years from the middle of the last decade? Should I go further back then that, how about Sampras in the 90s of John McEnroe in 1984? Call me a contrarian if you will, but perhaps Novak's still got some work before he can claim the "greatest season" title.

Let's compare his (incomplete) 2011 season to four other great seasons: John McEnroe in 1984, Pete Sampras in 1994, Roger Federer in 2006, and Rafael Nadal in 2010. We'll consider wins and losses, grand slam tournament titles, overall tournament titles, and record against Top 10 ranked opponents:

Okay, so Novak’s record is the best of the group, but he’s played 31 fewer matches than McEnroe and 43 fewer matches than Federer.  If he plays the remainder of his schedule, he might play 40 more matches this year. It’s certainly no sure thing that his wins or winning percentage will be as good as either McEnroe or Federer come December. He’s won two of the three grand slams, which is par for the course for this group. Both Nadal and Federer won three. Djokovic will have his chance to equal that mark in a few weeks at the U.S. Open (see a note on this below). Note that Federer’s one loss in a grand slam in 2006 was in the French Open final against Nadal. Djokovic has won nine titles so far, but needs to win a few more to equal Federer. Djokovic also leads in terms of winning percentage over Top 10 players, but he’ll have to stay sharp to keep ahead of Federer’s 2006 record.

Djokovic still has a ways to go to match Federer's 2006
So here’s my analysis. Federer and McEnroe’s seasons are the best of this group. Djokovic is certainly experiencing one of the best seasons of all time, but he needs to do more to stake a real claim to the best ever. I’ll concede that he’s had the best seven-and-a-half months of any man in the past 30 plus years, but there is still a lot of tennis season to go.

What’s left for him to focus on? First and foremost, win the U.S. Open. He’s been real close before, 2011 is his best chance to break through at Flushing Meadows. Am I out of line in thinking that he’ll have at least one testing moment in New York? Will he come through like he has all season? I have no doubt that to win the U.S. Open he'll have to keep up his peerless play.

What else? Well, winning a bunch more matches and a couple other tournaments would help. Winning the year-end World tour Finals against the other top players (as McEnroe, Sampras, and Federer all did) wouldn't hurt. Oh, and ending the year ranked number 1. It might seem like a foregone conclusion, but he hasn't wrapped up the top ranking just yet.


Winning three grand slams in a single season used to be a rarity. From 1968 to 2003 it only occurred three times:
  • Rod Laver won all four in 1969 (the only man in the Open Era to do so)
  • Jimmy Connors won 3 in 1974 (Australian Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open)
  • Mats Wilander won 3 in 1988 (Australian Open, French Open, U.S. Open)
      Since 2004 it’s happened four separate times, albeit by two of the greatest players ever: 
  •  Roger Federer won 3 in 2004, 2006, and 2007 (Australian Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open each time) 
  •  Rafael Nadal won 3 in 2010 (French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open)


  1. Pete Bodo compares Djokovic's season to several other great seasons (he uses Federer's 2005 season instead of 2006, which I disagree with). His conclusions are similar to mine, but check it out at:

  2. Both Fed and Rafa lost may be right about the end of an era. Can't wait to see them and Djoko live at the US Open in a little over a week.