So why do I think Novak Djokovic was better in 2011 than his is now entering the 2015 French Open. Here’s why:
1. The Record
This is simple. In 2011 he was 37-0 and undefeated on the year rolling into Roland Garros. This year, two blemishes, albeit in the first two months of the year and in 500 events (Federer in Dubai, Karlovic in Doha).
No matter how you slice it, 37-0 > 35-2 and 7 2011 titles > 5 2015 titles.
2. The Scores
The numbers – game match stats like serving, returns, etc – are eerily similar if not identical, but the eye test on scores tells me otherwise.
In 2011, Djokovic lost a total of eight sets leading up to the French Open. Those sets were to Tomas Berdych, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Tomaz Bellucci and Ivan Dodig who was the lone player to take a set off Novak in Australia.
This year, not including his two losses he’s dropped 12 sets (16 if you include the two losses). Those sets to Kei Nishikori, Bellucci, Nicolas Almagro, Murray, Alex Dolgopolov and Federer. And also Karlovic.
The numbers tell us:
Novak Djokovic Set Records Entering the French Open
2015 79-16 (83.1%)
2011 79-9 (89.7%)
Both seasons he won 79 sets going into Paris, but this year he’s lost twice as many as he did in 2011 (16 to 8).
3. The Opponents
This year, Novak’s got a ton of great wins. Recently beating Federer, Ferrer and Nishikori to win Rome. He also hammered Nadal in Monte Carlo and took out Murray twice in Finals at Australia and Miami.
But in 2011, he beat Nadal not once, but FOUR times before Paris! Straight sets twice on clay and twice on hardcourts after losing the first set. And remember Nadal was not only No. 1, but he had won three straight Slams to finish 2010 (that’s a lot different to present day).
He also beat a 29-year-old Federer (who ended Novak’s streak at the French) three times and a Slamless-Murray twice.
Against his fellow big four, he’s gone an awfully impressive 6-1 this year. But in 2011 he went 11-0! That’s about as good as anyone has done in this century.
4. Quality of Competition
And here’s the rub. Let’s be honest, back in 2011 Rafael Nadal was the Rafael Nadal as we know him. He was in full flight. After tweaking his leg against Ferrer in the Australian Open quarters, where he was going for his “Rafa Slam”, the only person to beat the Spaniard until the grass was Djokovic! Rafa wasn’t losing to chums like Almagro and Fognini. Not that spring.
Federer was also a stronger player. He’s ranked two now, but in 2011 the only players to beat Roger were Nadal, Djokovic and two surprise losses on clay to Gasquet and Melzer. Otherwise he was clean and mean and still won 20 Slam matches that season.
If you want to make the case Murray’s a better player now, I’ll listen and probably agree with you. But I just feel it was a tougher climate back then. Now, with Federer and Nadal on the decline, more opportunities exist for guys like Cilic, Wawrinka and even Nishikori to do damage.
So to answer the hot-button topic of is the tour weaker right now than it was a few years, yes. And guys like Djokovic and Federer are benefiting from that weakness.
5. His Game
Watching Djokovic, I honestly don’t see a lot of difference between now and then. Maybe these days he adds a few more drop shots, comes to the net a little more, but otherwise I don’t really see anything new. He was tough to beat then, and he’s tough to beat now. There really still are no holes, no places to attack if his serve is on song and he’s confident in the backhand-down-the-line.
In 2011, guys like Nadal really pushed him to the brink. I haven’t really seen that this year. Murray made him work hard in Australia, but then faded. Federer took it to him at Indian Wells. But in 2011 he was just super human.
Though you could make the case that now no one can even force him because he’s just that much better.
Conclusion: 2011 Djokovic beats 2015 Djokovic 7-6(3), 7-5.
A few more things to consider.
In 2011, Djokovic was the hunter. He was ranked No. 2/3 during that period. He was chasing Nadal, who was at the peak of his powers. But Novak was ultra-motivated to finally reach that top spot which he finally did after winning Wimbledon.
This year, it’s reversed. He’s the hunted. That’s often the tougher role. And what’s the motivation now for Novak? Win, of course, is always the motivation. But for him it’s especially the French. Paris, that’s the goal of the season, yet he continues to dominate everything else.
Djokovic is also a family man now, with a wife and a baby boy. That can’t make life any easier, I don’t think. So credit to Novak for putting up some incredible numbers, but the real number he wants is seven. That’s the seven wins it will take to finally win the French Open.
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