Win or lose this week at the ATP World Tour Finals, the debate is over. This is Novak Djokovic’s finest season, even better than his annus tremendous in 2011, when he stretched his limits to pass the two men who had dominated the game: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The most important numbers look the same. In 2015, as in 2011, Djokovic won 10 titles and three of four Grand Slam tournaments, losing the French Open where a deeply aggressive and inspired Swiss performance was required to stop him. In 2011, it was Federer in the semifinals. In 2015, it was Stan Wawrinka in the final.
The difference this year has been consistency, with precious few dips in focus or form from January to November.
“It’s been kind of relentless perfection,” Paul Annacone, the former coach of Pete Sampras and Federer, said this week.
Djokovic is 27-4 against the top 10, which gives him more top-10 victories in a season than any other men’s player in the Open era. Over his career, Djokovic’s winning percentage against the top 10 is 66.1 percent (65.5 percent for Nadal, 65.4 percent for Federer).
“Four years ago, he was much more volatile and a little more susceptible to the emotional ebbs and flows,” Annacone said. “Now he does have the emotions still, but he flushes it out pretty quickly. He’s been able to make regrouping look easy, and it’s not. To me, it’s been kind of an emotionally led process. Novak is just comfortable out there, and when you are that good and you are comfortable and composed, it’s pretty tough to derail someone with those talents. He’s just in the zone right now. As a tennis fan, it’s quite a treat to watch, though it’s not much fun to play against.”
In 2011, Djokovic won 41 straight matches to start the season, but lost his mojo after winning the U.S. Open. He strained an intercostal muscle in a Davis Cup semifinal match in September against Juan Martín del Potro of Argentina. After a six-week layoff, he looked like a man running on fumes instead of a gluten-free diet.
He lost to Kei Nishikori in the semifinals in Basel, Switzerland, dropping the final set, 6-0. Hollow-eyed and sotto voce, Djokovic dropped out of the Paris indoors after two rounds, citing a shoulder problem, and then lost two of his three matches at the World Tour Finals in London, failing to make the semifinals.
This year, he looks quite prepared to sprint through the tape. No vacant look. No significant injuries. Only a 22-match winning streak after taking titles at the U.S. Open, Beijing, Shanghai and Paris.
“Since he lost in the first week of the year, he’s made the finals in every event he’s played,” Annacone said. “That’s just ridiculous.”
He finished 70-6 in 2011. Coming into London, he is 78-5, with a maximum of five matches remaining. His five losses came against Ivo Karlovic in the quarterfinals in Doha, Qatar, in the opening week of the season; against Federer on quick hardcourts in the finals in Dubai and Cincinnati; against Wawrinka in Paris; and against Andy Murray in Montreal.
Only the Karlovic loss could qualify as bad, although Karlovic’s monstrous serve can turn any match into a spin of the roulette wheel.
Only the Wawrinka loss could qualify as traumatic. It deprived Djokovic once again of the only Grand Slam singles title he lacks, this time after he had already eliminated the two most evident threats in Nadal and Murray.
But the coronation turned into consternation instead.
“That loss to Stan really hurt him,” said his coach Boris Becker.
And yet he shrugged off the hurt and a spirited upset bid from Kevin Anderson in the fourth round at Wimbledon before taking out Federer in the final.
It has been said that Wawrinka cost Djokovic the Grand Slam, but that might be a stretch. Winning the French Open would only have cranked up the pressure at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
“Looking at his frame of mind and the way he handled the rest of the year, I think Novak would have been pretty able to deal with it,” Annacone said. “But there’s no doubt Novak would have been facing a totally different landscape going into the U.S. Open with the Grand Slam on the line. Look at what it did to Serena.”
British oddsmakers have Djokovic at 12-1 to complete the Grand Slam in 2016 and at 16-1 to complete the Golden Slam, which would include the Olympic singles title in Rio de Janeiro.
Those are remarkably short odds considering all that can go awry in a season. No man has completed the Slam since Rod Laver in 1969, and no man has ever completed the Golden Slam.
But Djokovic’s current form and evident appetite for more victories are great persuaders. He is in his prime at 28 with room to improve, as Becker explained to L’Equipe last week.
“Sunday against Murray, the quality of the rallies was incredible for the first 30 minutes,” Becker said of the Paris indoor final. “At 3-2 the two players were fighting for breath. Andy could not keep up the rhythm; Novak did much better. The goal now is to be able to maintain this level throughout a whole match. The idea is not to have a better forehand but to have a better forehand for an hour and a half or to hours. You can work on that in training but also in the early rounds.”
Yet to appear is a younger rival who looks ready to take on Djokovic. Federer, who played him tough all season, is 34. Nadal, who has shown signs of resurgence, is running on knees that are ticking time bombs. Murray’s second serve remains a big question mark.
The only real question is how many records he can pick off before he loses his edge. For now, he is at 10 major singles titles, seven behind Federer, the career leader.
“It truly does motivate me,” Djokovic said. “I mean that’s one of the very reasons why Roger is still playing: a couple years ago when he got back to No. 1 to actually surpass Pete Sampras. And it’s a unique opportunity for you to write your name in the golden books of the history for the sport that you play that is so global and so traditional and has been played for over a century. It’s quite remarkable when you think about it. We are in the present moment, so we don’t get to feel it, but we will appreciate it over time.”