As sports fans, we’re on the lookout for “greatest of all time.” It matters. It’s Jordan. It’s Tiger. It’s why we react so viscerally, one way or the other, to Barry Bonds. Albert Pujols is one of the greatest players of all time, and he walks on water and hops on clouds for us. And of course Mariano Rivera is the greatest reliever of all time, and we revel in that almost every time we hear Enter Sandman.
Last night Novak Djokovic beat Rafael Nadal for the US Open championship. The Joker is 64-2 this season, and has taken out the world’s number two player six times. He holds three majors and only lost in the French Open semis to the the number three player in the world – who happens to also have a claim as the greatest tennis player of all-time. It might be the greatest season in the history of modern professional tennis.
The only real blemish on Djokovic’s season was the semi final loss at the French. If he had survived Federer there, and somehow managed to beat Nadal in the final, this would be an open and shut case. Beating Rafa on the red clay of Roland Garros would be as difficult as wrestling a great white in open waters. He never got the chance to test himself, but lest we forget, Djokovic did beat Nadal on red clay not once but twice in run-ups to the French Open.
The Joker’s only lost 23 sets this season. In his victories, he needed five sets only once, the epic semis in the US Open versus Federer. One of his two losses came in the tournament before the US Open in which he reitred to fourth-ranked Andy Murray. He won ten of the 12 tournaments he entered. It was a lesson in dominance.
The level of dominance is only as strong as the rest of the field. Since Nadal is at the top of his game and Federer is aging very gracefully, not to mention the excellence of Andy Murray, the field is quite strong. Rafa won the French and made two other Major finals. Murray made the finals of the Australian, and the semis of the three others and Federer made one final and two semis. None of the 2011 titles came easily.
Against these titans of tennis, Djokovic went 12-2. And he had to take out two of them, back-to-back in the same tournament four times. In his seven semi-final and finals appearance in the Majors, six of the opponents were either Nadal, Federer or Murray. His only “easy” match was Jo-Wilfired Tsonga in the Wimbledon semis.
There are a few other seasons in tennis history that might be as good as this one. John McEnroe in 1984 went 84-3. But he only held two Majors. He lost the French to Lendl after being up two sets to none. Roger Federer went 81-4 in 2005, but also only managed two Majors. Going back to Rod Laver (1960s) and Don Budge (1930s), we can find Grand Slam winners, but tennis was a different game then and I’m not one to comment on the evolution. Several other players have won three Majors in a season, but not with the periphal dominance of the Joker.
I don’t know enough about tennis to say with any certainty how the Joker has risen so far above the rest of the top players. But watching him humble Nadal with his powerful forehand made a lasting impression. Also, Djokovic recently went to a Gluten-free diet and it has changed his life for the better.
The tennis season does not end with the Majors, so Djokovic can still add to his resume, or fall off the perch, but the way he’s playing right now, I don’t think anybody can take him out. However, after 1984, John McEnroe never won another Major final and fell out of the top tier faster than Ivan Lendl could chug a Snapple.