Is there really a better tennis blogger? if there is I don't know it.
“Was this the greatest night in the history of baseball?”
That question was posed by an ESPN anchor to Tim Kurkjian, the network's MLB expert, on Thursday morning. A few hours earlier, two teams, the Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox, had completed historic end-of-season collapses at virtually the same moment. Kurkjian's answer? Do I really need to tell you? Yes, of course it was the greatest single night in the century-and-a-half history of the national pastime. And I agree, it was exciting, even if I did manage to fall asleep somewhere along the way. But I wonder: Will anyone outside of those two collapsed cities, Boston and Atlanta, remember it in a year?
Hyperbole is what we do in sports—we're the greatest ever at declaring things the greatest ever. Write a post about Victoria Azarenka’s bad shoulder, and an hour later you’ll find 10 commenters screaming at each other about whether Laver or Federer is the One True Goat. I’m not totally against this kind of chatter. I’m not spoilsport enough to declare that “Goats don’t exist"; I really do think Roger Federer is the best ever, and that the 2008 Wimbledon men’s final was the “greatest match of all time.” But there must be moderation in all things. How about we have a Goat summit meeting once a year? We could schedule it over the Christmas holidays.
There hasn’t been much moderation surrounding tennis’s latest greatest achievement, Novak Djokovic’s 2011 season. It didn’t even take half the year before speculation began about whether it was the best in men’s tennis history (or, for those of us who wanted to inject some futile last-minute sanity into the discussion, Open era history). There was a reason, or reason enough, for all of this premature talk: Djokovic wasn’t losing, to anyone. But there was also a wish among fans and commentators and editors to believe that we really were witnessing something historic, despite the cold hard fact that after his loss at the French Open, Djokovic would never match Rod Laver’s gold-standard Grand Slam of 1969. The desire to see history, and believe that you’re part of it, is strong.
Now that the biggest moments of Djokovic’s 2011 are over, and injury has slowed him, we can make a better assessment of his accomplishments. If his season isn’t the Greatest, what is it? First of all, it’s obviously not over yet. If he skips the Shanghai Masters, he will likely play three more events, in Basel, Paris, and London. If he wins all of them he could improve his record from its current 64-3 to something along the lines of 78-3. I would guess that this isn’t going to happen, except that I've already guessed that a lot of things wouldn’t happen for Djokovic this year that did. However he wraps it up, though, this has been one of the best seasons we’ve seen. Only five other men in the Open era (Laver, Connors, Wilander, Federer, and Nadal) have won at least three majors in a year, and no one has won five Masters events to go along with them. Yes, the Masters Series is a fairly new invention, but it’s still a testament to Djokovic’s consistency and surface versatility. Only McEnroe’s 82-3 in 1984 and Federer’s 92-5 in 2006 are in the same winning percentage stratosphere.
To me, though, another stat should, in the future, give people a true idea of Djokovic’s excellence this year: His 10-1 record against Federer and Nadal. That’s like killing two Goats at once; or like someone coming along in 1981 and dominating both Borg and McEnroe—you can’t say Djokovic had it easy. In fact, the only reason that his season isn’t vying with Laver's is that the Greatest of All Time, Federer, played some of his greatest tennis, in the year’s greatest match, in the semis of the French Open. And Djokovic was still a couple of points from sending it to a fifth set and most likely winning it. But while Federer came out on top, it was Djokovic’s streak, and the surreal quality of his season, that made that afternoon in Paris the most dramatic of the year.
Whether Djokovic’s 2011 is “better” than Federer’s '06 or Mac’s '84 or Rafa’s '10 or Connors’ '74 can be hashed out when it’s finally over and the numbers are all in. But I will say that the experience of watching him through this year has been unique. Djokovic started on top of the mountain in Melbourne and only got better from there. He won when we didn’t expect him to—against Nadal on clay—and he won when the expectations were immense, at the U.S. Open. He bounced back from the crushing disappointment of Paris to win Wimbledon, and came back to win when he really didn’t need to, against Andy Murray in the semis in Rome. What makes Djokovic’s season special to me was that it seemed like one long sustained performance—while he triumphed in a dozen different ways, it felt like one big, brilliant winning match, played on every surface, all over the world. I don’t think his season will end up being called the Greatest, but it may be the Most Elevated: Nobody has gotten closer to levitating on a tennis court than Djokovic did in 2011. May he rise again soon.
Have a good weekend