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Sky's the limit for US Open winner Novak

Is Djokovic’s year the best ever in men’s tennis?

Simon Cambers @scambers73

No matter what happens at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, which start at London’s O2 Arena on Sunday, there can be little debate as to who has been the outstanding player of 2011.

With three grand-slam titles, five Masters 1000s and two other tournament wins in the bag, and a distance clear at the top of the world rankings, Novak Djokovic has dominated the men’s tour in a way few people would have thought possible when the world’s top eight lined up here 12 months ago.

His performance in reaching the final of the US Open in 2010 hinted at what was to come but top spot and domination still seemed far away when he was well beaten by Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the Finals in London last November.

However, the Serb had made no secret of the fact that the Davis Cup final was his main aim and that he had been saving his energy to take on France in Belgrade. A fortnight later, Djokovic duly sent his country tennis mad by leading Serbia to their first ever victory in the competition and the celebrations, as he later revealed, lasted three days. Since then, the 24-year-old has not looked back.

I have rarely seen any player look so ready for a grand slam as Djokovic did in Australia and it was really not a massive surprise that he went on to win it for a second time.

Riding the wave that began in New York and took him through to Davis Cup glory, the doubts had gone and he was simply playing at a new level, as Andy Murray found out in the final in Melbourne.

To then beat Rafael Nadal in four straight finals, two of them on the Spaniard’s beloved clay, was an unbelievable effort and it took until the French Open semi-finals before he lost his first match of the year, going down to Federer in four brutally intense sets.

One month later he won his first Wimbledon title and then swept through the US Open to make it three grand-slam victories in one year, equalling the achievements of Nadal in 2010 and Federer in 2004 and 2006, and elevating his status in the sport.

But just how good an achievement is it? Journalists and sports fans love nothing more than to quantify the achievements of the world’s best by comparing their efforts with those of others in the past. OK, so Djokovic won three grand slams, but is what he’s done better than anyone before him?

Well, let’s have a look. When Djokovic won the US Open, Pete Sampras, the winner of 14 grand-slam titles, said it was “at least in my lifetime, the best ever”. And even John McEnroe himself admitted that the Serb’s achievements were better than his.

“Wimbledon was where he separated himself and took himself to a whole new level,” the American said. “Djokovic is having the greatest year in the history of our sport.”

You can almost hear McEnroe wincing as he says those words but perhaps he was being generous because the year he was referring to still stands as the best year in men’s tennis, at least statistically. In 1984, when he demolished Jimmy Connors in the final at Wimbledon for the loss of four games, he won 82 matches and lost just three.

He added the US Open to his Wimbledon triumph and was agonisingly close to winning the French Open as well, leading Ivan Lendl by two sets to love and a break of serve in the fourth set before going down in five. The other two defeats were to Vijay Amritraj in Cincinnati (“It was the week before the US Open then and I was not overly upset to lose,” McEnroe told me earlier this summer) and then to Henrik Sundstrom as Sweden stunned the USA to win the Davis Cup.

McEnroe won 13 of 15 tournaments that year and though he “only” won two grand slams, in terms of pure statistics, his exploits put him top of the tree, with a 96.47 per cent win-rate. That puts him just ahead of Connors, who won 93 of 97 matches in 1974, including three grand slams, with a win rate of 95.88 per cent.

Federer compiled an 81-4 record in 2005, with two grand slams and nine other titles, to place third at 95.29 per cent. In 2006, when the Swiss won three grand slams, the ATP World Tour Finals and eight other tournaments, his 92-5 record gave him a win rate of 94.85 per cent. Djokovic goes into London with a 69-4 record, at 94.52 per cent, fifth on the all-time list. Even if he wins all five matches in London, the best he can do is fourth.

There are lies, damned lies and statistics, according to the quotation often attributed to Mark Twain, the American author. If Djokovic goes on to lose all three group matches in London and fails to make the semi-finals, does that in any way lessen the achievements of his year?

Of course not. He is streets ahead at the top of the rankings and he has transformed his game to the point where he will begin 2012 as the man to beat, no matter what happens at the O2.

Other than the defeat by Federer, his three other losses were heavily influenced by the nagging shoulder injury that he will carry into London. He quit in the second set of the final in Cincinnati against Murray and in the second set of a Davis Cup clash with Juan Martin Del Potro and lost the third set 6-0 in defeat to Kei Nishikori in Basle.

The walkover he gave Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Paris Masters last week does not count towards his win-loss record so who is to say that without the injury he wouldn’t be going into London with still just one defeat?

Comparing eras is always difficult. The huge changes in racket and string technology make the tennis played today almost a different sport to the one played by Rod Laver and his contemporaries in the 1960s. The professional era has brought numerous improvements, from the physical side to nutrition – as gluten-free Djokovic will attest to.

No one would compare the men’s game with the women’s because of the differences in the strength in depth between the two, but it’s fun to have a quick look because two years stand out and illustrate the problem of pure statistics.

Martina Navratilova’s annus mirabilis of 1983 put her top of the pile with a 98.85 per cent success rate. The great left-hander won 86 of 87 matches with her only defeat coming in the fourth round of the French Open. She won three grand slams that year, 13 other tournaments and only lost nine sets in the whole 12 months.

The 73-3 record compiled in 1988 by Steffi Graf, another of the all-time greats, gives her only a 96.1 per cent win rate. But that year she won the Grand Slam of Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open, as well as Olympic gold. Is that not a better year?

No one can take away from McEnroe, Connors and Federer what they achieved in their best years but what makes Djokovic’s year perhaps better than the lot is the competition he faced in doing it.

In 1984, McEnroe had Connors and Lendl for company but that French Open title was Lendl’s first grand-slam title, Connors was a fading force and Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg had yet to emerge.

In 1974, Connors was the No 1 by miles, with Bjorn Borg only just about to break through and McEnroe years away from coming through.

And in 2005, Federer was head and shoulders above the rest, pre-Nadal, with Lleyton Hewitt past his best and the rest too inconsistent to be a regular threat.

In 2011, Djokovic not only took on two of the all-time greats in Federer and Nadal, with 26 grand slam titles between them, he dominated them. With Murray, who reached at least the semi-finals in all four of the grand slams, the four were a class above from the rest and Djokovic set himself apart from the other three. All this, in an era when the physicality of the sport has never been greater.

We come back to McEnroe. “Given that there’s more competition, more athleticism and deeper fields now, I’d say his record is even more impressive than mine,” he said. And perhaps the most fitting words of all came from Nadal, as he accepted the runners-up prize at the US Open. “What you did this year is probably impossible to repeat,” the Spaniard said.

It will be hard, if not impossible, for Djokovic to repeat his 2011 exploits in 2012. Navratilova advised him to “enjoy it while it lasts” but also said what he has done this year will stand the test of time. “What a season,” Navratilova said at the US Open. “It’s unbelievable. And it probably won’t ever happen again.”

Is it the best year ever? If he adds the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals to what he has already achieved, then perhaps there will be no argument. Other than from statisticians, of course.

1.    John McEnroe (1984)  W-L 82-3 = 96.47%
2.    Jimmy Connors (1974) W-L 93-4 = 95.88%
3.    Roger Federer (2005) W-L 81-4 = 95.29%
4.    Roger Federer (2006) W-L 92-5 = 94.85%
5.    Novak Djokovic (2011) W-L 69-4 = 94.52%

Stats: Courtesy of the ATP World Tour

Buy tickets and follow the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena through the official website

If you enjoyed this, then check out Simon’s take on ATP Tour player unrest in “Strike it Rich”

7 Responses to “Annus Mirabilis”

  1. Never in the history of tennis have we had such a competitive season - to even compare Nole with Connors or Mac is ridiculous

    They are all legends of the game - there doesn’t need to be better or worse. It’s just stats for stats sake.

    Why don’t you write a preview of the EYC, how the styles match up, the groups, the fake injuries, the path to the final.

  2. That’s exactly my point, dayjur. If you look at stats alone, then Djokovic’s year is not the best. But when you look at the competition and level he’s played at, then perhaps it is? It’s a fun debate!

  3. I disagree Dayjur, if you watch tennis on TV you can get a comprehensive insight into the ins and out of technique and tactics. Plus it riles me when journos put themselves on the same analytical plain as seasoned professionals and ex-greats. Leave that side to McEnroe et al.

    There are some interesting stats in here that i havent seen before. And when analysing greatness you have to look back to look forward. Well written and insightful piece chaps. Kudos.

  4. Charles Perrin November 17, 2011

    Novak Djokovic doesn’t possess the best win/loss record as you point out, but regardless he has already cemented his place in the history book as he is one of the best players of this era to grace the game which is what you mention in your tie-up.

    It is of course a tricky exercise trying to compare the players in the modern day game to those of yesteryear due to changes in technology, because the likes of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors used wooden rackets and the game itself has advanced enormously with the invention of HawkEye.

    As Matt highlighted in the podcast, the ATP Tour Finals does seem to resemble the aftermath of the Lord Mayor’s Show. Djokovic is bound to be worn out after his exploits and it is no surprise he hasn’t been at the peak of his powers in the last couple of weeks. But he has nothing to prove.

    The Davis Cup was indisputably a turning point and there has been an incredible transformation in his all-round game, from his resilience whereby he can cover the court seemingly like an octopus, to his serve which is a weapon, to his net game where he appears to be an indomitable force.

    I don’t see why he can’t replicate his success of this year as he is ‘streets ahead at the top of the rankings’. He appears to have the mental edge over Rafa Nadal as I recall him beating the Spaniard this year in the Madrid, Rome and Miami Masters Finals.

    We will have to watch this space. Fascinating feature and I like your literary reference to Mark Twain.

  5. Federer’s best year was vs players past their best? In 2011 are Fed and Nadal at their best? Doesnt seem that way to me…

  6. Many tennis viewers seem to have incredibly short memory - and unfortunately that includes some of the pithiest pundits. Federer had 2 anni mirabiles in back-to-back seasons, only 5 and 6 years ago. Both of them were better than this year for ND.

    ND reached 3 GS finals 2011, but RF 4 in 2006. Both won 3 GS’s. RF won 92 matches in 2006, ND might reach 74.

    This year has been wonderful for Djokovic, but I cannot find any way to reason it to be the best one in tennis. Many have just already forgotten Federer’s two best seasons.

  7. Conor Brewski November 18, 2011

    I personally think Nadal has looked tired all year and believe his knees are more of a problem than he and Uncle Toni will admit.

    Roger’s lost that aura of invincibility and the players, Tsonga for example, know they can beat him. Fed’s age also an issue. As for Andrew Murray, he is mentally suspect at Grand Slam level. So Novak - great year as it has been, has had it easier than it looks. These comparisons are great fun though.

    Simon your pieces are always very good. Keep them coming. The Sport Collective impressive.


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