Novak Djokovic’s 2015 season takes its place in tennis history

(NOTE: A story on Novak Djokovic’s 2015 season was originally posted here after Mr. Djokovic won the 2015 ATP World Tour Finals in late November, days before the Davis Cup. It was accidentally deleted and unable to be retrieved. It was not scrubbed or purposefully removed. Life just happened. What follows is therefore not a review of the World Tour Finals, a relatively distant memory by now, but a specific treatment of Djokovic’s season, without commentary on where Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, and Stan Wawrinka stand at the end of the 2015. If you want opinions on those players…  just ask me on Twitter. [Smiley-face emoji]  – M.Z.)

*

The starting point for this story is Serena Williams’s loss to Roberta Vinci in the semifinals of the 2015 U.S. Open.

We saw how much the pressure of the moment and the weight of expectations inhibited Serena. Pressure doesn’t necessarily lead to wild mistakes (though it can). It doesn’t automatically lead to bizarre or erratic displays of emotion (though it often will). Pressure will commonly lead to absences as well as presences — the absence of fluid movements, the absence of quick and instantaneous responses, the absence of full command over performance.

In baseball, nerves might mean that a fastball is thrown straight, without late movement of any kind, making it easier for the hitter to measure. In basketball, this might mean that a jump shot involves the squeezing of the ball by the shooter, such that the ball doesn’t fluidly slide off the fingers of the shooting hand, instead knuckling a few inches to the side, enough to miss the basket.

Serena — when relaxed and in ownership of total clarity — cannot be beaten by anyone else on the planet. With very few exceptions (think of Victoria Azarenka at her best), Serena has to regress long enough — and an opponent must excel during that same period of time — in order for an upset to happen. Vinci was given such a window of opportunity, and she stepped through it.

Much the same was true in the second set of the 2015 French Open final, when a sluggish Novak Djokovic — feeling the moment too much and playing his opponent with insufficient clarity — allowed a best-of-five-set match to turn against him.

That second set and the match as a whole mirrored the three previous seasons for Djokovic. He and his fans both wondered why so many championship matches slipped through his fingers. Djokovic was such a cutthroat closer in the 2011 season, but that very reality made 2012, 2013 and 2014 so utterly puzzling. Why — how? — did Djokovic lose his edge? He had to have wondered on that evening in Paris why he couldn’t seal a Roland Garros championship, which would have given him ownership of all four major titles.

That loss was a familiar one, and it could have haunted Djokovic for the rest of 2015.

When Djokovic fell behind Kevin Anderson by two sets in the fourth round of Wimbledon, it would have been that much easier for Djokovic to shrug his shoulders and say, “Hey, it’s just not my day.” The mysteries of the human mind — the competitive mind — in relationship to high-stakes pressure could have pierced and punctured him.

Instead, Djokovic won Wimbledon again, the first time he successfully defended a major outside Australia.

Instead, Djokovic won the U.S. Open for the second time, reaffirming his superiority on his best surface.

Instead, Djokovic made final after final after final (winning most of them), improving his level of play in China and continuing to answer every single challenge in Paris (Bercy Masters) and on the final weekend of the World Tour Finals in London. In the O2 Arena, he tied his head-to-head series with both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

When he left Roland Garros after the pressure of the moment weighed him down — much as it did for Serena in New York — Djokovic had just as much reason to think he’d fail as he’d excel.

Sure, “failure” is a relative term; we should all want to “fail” by losing in major finals. Yet, for the greatest players in any sport, nailing down championships when they hang in the balance is the supreme marker of quality on an all-time scale.

Serena’s ability to create a career renaissance well into her 30s (the last four years have represented the most fruitful period of her career; how many great athletes other than NFL quarterbacks get to say that they blossomed after turning 30?) shows how, even after many years in the trenches, a new vista of mental toughness was waiting to be found. She did indeed make new discoveries, the kinds of revelations which brought her to the doorstep of history this past September. It had been a long time since any tennis player came to New York with a chance to register the greatest feat in tennis. It’s a credit to Serena that she came as close as she did. Yet, being human, she felt the occasion on that semifinal Friday against Vinci (a match postponed from Thursday night, which marked a stroke of bad luck — the sun-and-shadow combination for day matches was a disaster at Ashe Stadium), and the seas of history flowed in a different direction.

The main takeaway from that experience in New York is that Serena put herself in position to achieve something very large. The secondary (but quite important) follow-up point is that even the most experienced performers are not invulnerable to the very organic effects of nerves. It happens to the best of us.

The key connection to Djokovic: It happened a lot to him over the years, with 2011 being an exception.

This leads us back to the present moment and an appreciation of 2015: Just what made it so special? The statistics speak for themselves:

On a purely statistical level, it’s remarkable that Djokovic’s 2015 season clearly (not by a massive margin, but clearly nonetheless) exceeds Federer’s 2006 as a measure of achievement. Djokovic’s 2011 came close, but it lost steam after the U.S. Open. This time, Djokovic saw the season through to the very end, and history will duly reward him. Becoming the first man to pile up six Masters crowns and the World Tour Finals on top of a 27-1 mark at the majors — better than Serena’s 26-1 record — shows how high Djokovic soared in 2015. True, he didn’t come to the U.S. Open with a chance to win the Grand Slam. Only Serena had to deal with that kind of pressure.

Yet, if left to evaluate two tennis seasons in full — from the start of January until the end of November — Djokovic had the better one. How many of us were prepared to consider that possibility heading into New York?

The better question: How many of us were prepared to think that Djokovic would make this run at history back in Paris, on Court Philippe Chatrier, in early June?

*

Verily, the greatness of Djokovic’s history-smashing season — indisputably, in my mind, one of the five best seasons in the Open Era for either gender (more on that in a bit) — is not that Djokovic made it look so easy, but that it came in the face of adversity and hardship.

It takes an extraordinarily great and resilient athlete to reset the dial after a loss on the order of what Nole suffered against Wawrinka at Roland Garros… and rebound from a two-set deficit at Wimbledon to a man (Kevin Anderson) who is improving on tour and eventually found a way to beat a top-four opponent, Andy Murray, at his next major (the U.S. Open).

It takes a rare competitive specimen to lose the second set of the Wimbledon final the way Djokovic did, and then calmly deconstruct Roger Federer on grass over the next two sets, barely making any errors.

It takes an all-time legend to push through Canada and Cincinnati and reach finals even without one’s best tennis; go to New York; absorb the drunken and unruly pro-Federer crowd in a night final (due to weather); steal a close third set with remarkable defensive plays late in the proceedings; capture that championship; and then endure virtually zero letdowns of any kind in October and November, en route to a truckload of hardware.

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have done extraordinary things in tennis. After 2015, Novak Djokovic has eliminated any and all doubt that he should be viewed in the same lofty terms, because he is forging (and will continue to forge, in this cutthroat Golden Era of men’s tennis) remarkable feats his two great contemporaries won’t ever match. (Rafa, as superhuman as he’s been at his best, will not beat 31 top-10 foes or claim six Masters in a season before he’s done. Neither will Fed.)

*

Yes, the Grand Slam is the toughest thing to achieve in tennis — just ask Serena after this year. For this reason, Steffi Graf’s “Golden Slam” in 1988 (the Slam plus one, to put it succinctly) is the greatest season of tennis in the Open Era. Rod Laver’s remarkable second go-round with the “Granny” in 1969 is number two. Margaret Smith Court’s 1970 Slam is number three.

After that, the next two best candidates are Martina Navratilova’s 1983 (she lost one match — 86-1) and Djokovic’s 2015.

Monica Seles’s 1992; Graf’s 1989; Federer’s 2006; Nadal’s 2008; Navratilova’s 1984; John McEnroe’s 1984 — they all fill spots 6 through 11, but the top five seem impossible to dislodge at the moment.

Djokovic achieved — realistically — as much as a tennis player can possibly achieve without winning the Grand Slam. We never got to see the buildup to a rendezvous with history at the U.S. Open the way we did with Serena, but to repeat that refrain, Djokovic finished off his season in a way he wasn’t able to do in 2011, a season which — as we saw it unfold — was preposterously, outrageously remarkable at the time.

We had wondered where “Djokovic the Closer” had gone. He apparently needed 2012 through 2014 to learn how to wear the mantle of top-tier greatness. He also apparently needed Boris Becker — as much as many of us (myself included) tore into that hire at the time — to help him in that very task. Now that he’s rediscovered himself at the highest reaches of competition, he can overcome wrenching losses and swat them away with uncommon consistency.

This is not merely what great players do; it’s what the greatest of great players do.

More precisely, it’s what happens when a man registers the second-best individual season of ATP tennis in the Open Era, the best season witnessed in 46 years of professional competition.

There’s Rod Laver’s 1969, there’s Novak Djokovic’s 2015, and then there’s everyone else.

Novak Djokovic, looking down on Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on certain historical levels and through the prism of specific historical measurements? It’s real. It’s a testament to Nole’s competitive chops.

That it happened after — and in the face of — that Roland Garros gut-punch is what makes the accomplishment of this tennis season so ultimately and awesomely impressive.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

Quantcast