By Matthew Laird, Special to Tennis-X.com
Even before Novak Djokovic began his absolutely astounding run of form at last year’s Davis Cup, he already had one interesting honor to his name: he is the only player to win the ATP’s annual Most Improved Player in two consecutive years. Novak first won the award in 2006, when he began the year ranked 78th and finish it ranked 14th, having won two titles and gone 35-17 on the year. In 2005, he had gone a mere 9-9. As if that rise wasn’t enough, the following year, Djokovic moved from 14th all the way up to 3rd. During 2007, Novak made the semifinals at Wimbledon and Roland Garros, followed by a final at the U.S. Open, but his most impressive result was at the Canada Masters event, where he won the title while becoming the first player to beat the 3rd, 2nd, and top-ranked players back-to-back-to-back.
The pinnacle of Djokovic’s initial rise came at the 2008 Australian Open, where he avenged his U.S. Open loss against Federer in the semifinals and then ousted surprise finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to bag his first Grand Slam title. At the moment, it seemed that Novak’s progress was unstoppable. After Djokovic ousted Federer, the Serb’s mother Dijana said in an interview, “The king is dead, long live the king.” That comment turned out to be just premature, if not exactly wrong.
After Djokovic ousted Rafael on Sunday in the fourth Master’s Series final the pair has contested this year, it is very nearly a mathematical certainty that Djokovic will soon ascend to the rarefied air of the number one ranking. In fact, it is nearly a guarantee that he will be there as soon as June 6. As champion, Nadal is defending 2000 points at the French Open, but Djokovic has a mere 360, as a losing quarterfinalist. Even if Nadal does manage to repeat his title, he still won’t be able to hold off the Serb, so long as Djokovic advances a bit further than he did in 2010. So one of two things needs to happen: if Nadal fails to win the title, or if Djokovic makes the final. Of course, as the top two seeds, Djokovic and Nadal can’t meet before the final.
And even if neither of those events occurs in the upcoming fortnight, it’s still only a matter of time. Djokovic has accumulated 6750 points this year alone, and Nadal has more then 7000 points to defend before the year’s done. At this point, Djokovic is only 405 points behind Rafa. There’s just no way that Rafa can hold Novak off for that long. It’s only fair, as well. At the moment, Djokovic is one of three players since 1980 who have won two Grand Slam titles without being ranked number one in the world. The others are Sergi Brugera, who barely ever played except on clay, and Johan Kriek, who won the Australian Open twice in the early 80’s, when the top players simply didn’t make the trip. It may not be official yet, but there’s no doubt that Djokovic has been playing like the number one player in the world this entire year.
I contend that the rise in Djokovic’s level this year is even more impressive, by a pretty wide margin, than his improvement in either 2006 or 2007. Last year, Djokovic was struggling on serve. He had fiddled with the motion, and his number of double-faults went through the roof. He was struggling with confidence, as well. He lost unexpectedly in the first three Grand Slams of the year, to the very talented but relatively unaccomplished trio of Tsonga, Melzer, and Berdych. He came within inches of losing to Roger Federer in the U.S. Open semifinals, hitting two of the biggest forehands I’ve ever seen to save a pair of match points.
Djokovic played well, but not exceptionally, in the remainder of 2010. Federer got him back three times in the post-U.S. Open swing through Asia and the European indoor courts, including a loss in the semifinals at the World Tour Finals, back in November. That was the last time Djokovic lost. He then dominated his matches in the Davis Cup final, winning two of the team’s three points. Some people claim that the Serbian victory in the Davis Cup final energized Djokovic at the start of 2011, fueled his confidence, and contributed to his white-hot run of form in the first five months of the year.
To me, that explanation is woefully insufficient to explain what is quickly becoming a historic streak. Djokovic is two matches away from tying Roger Federer’s longest career winning streak (41), five matches from tying John McEnroe’s best-ever start to a season (42, but keep in mind Novak’s Davis Cup wins in 2010 don’t count toward this record), and seven matches from tying the longest ever winning streak since the start of the Open Era, 46 matches by Guillermo Vilas back in 1978.
This is not just a slight jump in his level. The change between 2010-vintage Djokovic and the man who has blazed through every opponent he has faced this year is unprecedented in such a short time frame. Djokovic is a player who struggled with fitness and breathing, who had a reputation for retiring from matches, who sometimes showed mental lapses in the tightest moments of matches. This is not intended to be a knock on Djokovic; every player has problems like those. But this year, that side of Novak’s game has been conspicuously absent.
That fact was never more clear than on Sunday, when Djokovic returned from a spectacularly close win against Andy Murray in the semifinals, which he pulled through even after the Scot served for the match in the third set. At times, Novak looked physically and mentally exhausted. He was two points from defeat, and then he was back on court, less than 18 hours later. All the evidence would have suggested that Djokovic wouldn’t be able to bounce back that quickly, since Nadal not only had an easier match but more time to recover. Commentators talked about how they hoped that the match would at least be “competitive.” After two tight hours, it proved to be a very competitive match, but Djokovic didn’t just make a good showing of himself, he somehow managed to win.
He had beaten Rafael Nadal in consecutive clay-court finals. He had beaten Rafael Nadal four times in a row. If he felt any effects from the match against Andy Murray, he didn’t show it at all. Nadal came out with a gameplan, to run Djokovic from one side of the court to the other, but Novak would not be denied. He continued to bludgeon his backhands, run down every shot that Nadal threw at him, and simply refuse to miss. His ability to hit enormous shots, to create absurd angles, to paint the lines point after point is not new. He’s shown that he can play at this level before. But in the past, he had been at this level for maybe a handful of matches each year. This year, he has been untouchable every time he stepped on court, 37 matches in a row.
I don’t know how to explain it. The Davis Cup win is certainly a factor. Djokovic’s camp says he is on a new gluten-free diet. Maybe he’s just in the perfect mental state to maximize his level, every time he plays a match. He’s been zoning for five straight months, and it has become a historic run. When Djokovic loses, and he has to lose eventually, whether that occurs during the French Open, Wimbledon, or during the U.S. hard court swing over the summer, it doesn’t matter if Djokovic doesn’t pick up a racket for the rest of the year. He is still my hands-down pick for the Most Improved Player in 2011.
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