Past greats awed by Novak Djokovic

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Whether Novak Djokovic will become a man for all seasons remains a mystery. What isn't a mystery is that in 2011, Djokovic is the man putting together one of the greatest tennis seasons of all time.

Djokovic has been near-flawless this year. He's won three of the four Grand Slams -- the Australian Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. He's nailed down 10 titles thus far with more tournaments still to play. He's assembled an amazing 64-3 season. And he dislodged Rafael Nadal from the No. 1 ranking, winning all six matches they've played, including the Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals.

But stringing together this type of season is an arduous process. So difficult, in fact, that most of the game's other great luminaries never came close to this kind of dominance. Pinpointing exactly what transformed Djokovic into a destructive force is not so cut and dry.

Four former Grand Slam champions -- Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang -- kicked off the 12-city 2011 Champions Series senior tour last week and weighed in. While at their first tour stop at the Bank Atlantic Center in South Florida, the quartet were eager to chat about the new boss man of tennis, Djokovic.

"It's a progression being the best player in the world," Sampras said. "It just doesn't happen overnight. He has a firm handle at the top spot now and it's really one of the best years I've ever seen. To beat Nadal, one of the all-time greats all times, six times. To beat Roger [Federer], arguably the best player of all time, [four] times, it's just an incredible year. And I think he'll win more Grand Slams; he's that good."

Sampras had an opportunity to meet with Djokovic this summer when the Serb was in Los Angeles. The two had hoped to share a hit, but Sampras, disappointingly, could not because of a sore back. But the American was more than happy to be the voice of experience.

"We had dinner, and we just talked for a couple of hours," Sampras said. "He's really a nice kid, very sincere and he was interested in my career and how I stayed up on top of the game, which is what he's trying to do. I just told him what I tried to do, for my personality, was to try and keep it simple. At the Grand Slams I never wanted to do anything because I only wanted to focus on my tennis. I think he took what I said to heart."

To judge just how good Djokovic is these days, the former champions keyed in on his recent U.S. Open semifinal match. Djokovic faced two match points before coming back to beat Federer 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5. The prevailing opinion is that match validated Djokovic's improved mental fortitude.

"He has a short memory now," Sampras said. "He used to be temperamental and would let bad points linger in his head. But he turned it right around in that third set [against Federer at the Open] to play great tennis."

Michael Chang said, "This year, Djokovic put his foot in the door and said, 'Hey, take a look at me.' It's been a lot of fun to watch him play this year. I've got to think it's something more than his [new gluten-free] diet. He's playing with an unbelievable amount of confidence. Even when he was down those two match points to Federer, he was kind of laughing it off and didn't get dejected."

Once Djokovic began believing, he was almost invincible; his style of play became really off-putting for players. It doesn't hurt that he finally made a few necessary technical improvements to his serve and forehand, which were the two weaker aspects of his game.

"He gives these guys trouble because he plays a little bit old-school, taking the ball earlier, catching the ball on the rise, driving the ball flat," Connors said. "And a lot of the topspin the guys drive at him comes right into his zone. He turns defense into offense pretty good."

The former champions view themselves as fans as well as experts of the game. So it's not surprising they're all watching Djokovic carefully to see how long he can keep up this amazing level. Although we've seen guys maintain control for long periods of time, there's always the next guy waiting to step up.

"This time last year we were talking about the Rafael Nadal era, and he had won three of the four majors and was the dominant force on tour," Courier said. "Now it's Djokovic. What it will be this time next year, well, that's why we watch because there's no way to predict it. But he's set the bar, particularly for Nadal, to go and try to solve the puzzle of Novak."

In the meantime, instead of wondering how long Djokovic can linger at the top, Connors laughingly suggested there could be a side business for the Serb.

"Not 16 months ago, he couldn't last two sets and now he's outdueling Nadal on clay," Connors said. "What he has done in the last year, not only with his game, but his conditioning, I don't know what it is. I don't even know if he knows what it is. But if he could bottle that and sell it, it would be unbelievable."