Djokovic must get busy at majors
Already one of the top players ever, he needs Grand Slams to be truly elite
On the face of things, Novak Djokovic needn't worry about much.
He's trying to win the Australian Open for the fourth consecutive time, topping his Open era record of three straight titles, set when he beat Andy Murray in the final last year. He is the world's second-ranked player but arguably the best pure tennis player in the world, jousting for tennis superiority with Rafael Nadal.
Djokovic may rightly feel he is the better player. According to stats guru Greg Sharko at the ATP, Djokovic is serving better than ever statistically. He is fourth in service games held and is second in service breaks. But if he wants a permanent place in the upper reaches of the historical elite, math indicates that Melbourne is the time for him to begin making the marathoner's kick toward immortality.
If anyone can identify with such a competition against history, it is Serena Williams. In her quest to be considered perhaps the greatest women's player ever, Williams has been furiously adding Grand Slam hardware to reinforce her case.
She's won four of the past five majors and has 17 Grand Slam singles titles overall. That's one behind Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, five behind Steffi Graf's Open era record of 22 and seven behind the historical record of 24 by Margaret Court.
Roger Federer has a record 17 major titles. Pete Sampras has 14. Nadal has 13, and Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg have 11.
Djokovic's opposition stands not only across the net but also in the space between his ears, the gnawing feelings in his joints, the fluctuations of his personal life, in quirks of fate and the recognition of just how hard it is to win. He's played in 10 of the past 13 Grand Slam finals but has only won two of the past eight, the past two Australian Opens. For immortality, he knows he must reach at least double digits, and he may have to begin winning more than one major per year.
Nadal has won a major in nine straight years. Federer (2003-10) and Sampras (1993-2000) did it in eight straight. Since a breakout 2011 season in which he won three of four majors, Djokovic has stalled somewhat, partly because he is still surrounded by great players. Nadal had a resurgence in 2013, and Murray has become a true champion who will not wilt under the bright lights and who no longer beats himself.
Another reason is how hard Djokovic works on the court. Part of his legend is built around stirring comebacks from the edge of elimination, most notably against Federer at the US Open semifinals in 2010 and 2011; against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Roland Garros quarterfinals in 2012; and against Stanislas Wawrinka in the fourth round at Melbourne last year. Such Herculean resolve may have come at a serious cost, though, both physically and mentally.
In the two years from the 2011 to 2013 US Opens, Djokovic played 10 five-set Grand Slam matches. By comparison, Nadal has played 15 such matches in his entire 11-year career
Djokovic has a terrific chance to win multiple majors in 2014, because the game is in the midst of a potentially steep and interesting transition. Murray has beaten Djokovic in two of their past three Grand Slam final meetings, but Murray is coming off a back injury that hampered his title defense at Flushing Meadows and eventually required surgery. A healthy Murray, though, would further impede Djokovic at three of the four majors.
Federer is coming off his worst year in a decade, not just because he won only one title (the 250-level Wimbledon tuneup in Halle) but also because he went 0-7 against Djokovic, Nadal and Murray. His game creaked last year as matches extended into three and four sets.
He seemed not to have recovered from consecutive five-setters with Tsonga and Murray in Melbourne last year: He was trounced in straight sets by Tsonga at Roland Garros, lost in four sets in the second round at Wimbledon to Sergiy Stakhovsky and lost again in straights at Flushing Meadows in the fourth round to Tommy Robredo. Overall, Federer was just 3-6 in matches against top-10 players that went three sets or longer.
Outside of Nadal, del Potro is the most dangerous threat to Djokovic in the top 10. The Argentine beat Djokovic in the semifinals at Indian Wells, but Djokovic outlasted him in a classic Wimbledon semifinal and bested del Potro in a three-set final in the Shanghai Masters 1000.
However, del Potro beat all six top-10 players he faced (he did not play Tomas Berdych, Wawrinka or Tsonga) in 2013, and won the 2009 US Open. A healthy, focused del Potro can alter the look of any Grand Slam.
It's also fascinating to examine how close Djokovic came to winning both the career and calendar Grand Slam, yet ended up so far from both.
At Roland Garros, Djokovic lost just enough focus while up a break in the fifth to allow Nadal to escape. Djokovic accidentally touched the net following through on a smash, then as the match grew tighter, he complained about the watering of the court. Nadal did not blink and stole the match.
When Murray beat him at Wimbledon, Djokovic was clearly spent after his titanic five-set semifinal with del Potro, but Djokovic knows fatigue is no excuse. After all, at the Australian in 2012 he beat Murray in a 4-hour, 50-minute semifinal and came back to top Nadal in a 5-hour, 53-minute final. Djokovic also admitted personal-life distractions affected his play.
In Flushing Meadows, in the second set and midway through the third, it appeared that Djokovic had returned to his pattern of pushing Nadal back and controlling space. Nadal rose, though, taking over late in the third, then destroying Djokovic 6-1 in the fourth to win the title.
Djokovic has said it was the championship pedigree of Becker that created the attraction -- suggesting that Djokovic, whose stirring comebacks had created an indomitable on-court persona, saw something in his game and his lapses against Nadal that required attention.
As he enters a fourth career title defense in Melbourne, Djokovic will be playing not only the current field but also for a larger slice of history, one his talent demands and that in many ways he has already earned. But that will only be cemented with several more Grand Slam trophies.
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