Commentary

New York next stop for dominant Djoker

Updated: August 26, 2011, 3:48 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

After Novak Djokovic had beaten him for the second time in six weeks, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was asked if his opponent was completely out of reach -- in a word, surreal.

"He plays incredible tennis," said the Frenchman, who retired from their semifinal match in Montreal trailing 3-0 in the second set, "but he's not an alien. He doesn't hit harder, he doesn't hit the ball earlier. But he's always there. This is tiring when you play against him.

"He does not have the best return on the tour. But on every return, he returns well, and he's always there. So what does it is his consistency, and he has no weaknesses."

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Elsa/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic is one Slam away from becoming the third active player to win three Slams.

No, the 24-year-old Serb is not an alien. Despite pulling out of the Cincinnati Masters with an ailing shoulder this past weekend, Djokovic's play this season consistently has been something from another world.

Before the Montreal tournament, no player in the 20-year history of the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events had ever won five in a year. Not only did Djokovic win his fifth title, but it was his fifth in a row. That gave him a 27-0 record in the ATP's toughest non-major tournaments. The only reason he wasn't 6-for-6? He pulled out of Monte Carlo -- where he lives -- citing a knee injury. And who knows what would have happened if he were healthy versus Andy Murray at the Western & Southern Masters.

Jim Courier knows a little something about playing tennis at a surreal level. He reached three major finals in 1993. He won the Australian Open, beating Stefan Edberg in the final, but fell to Sergi Bruguera in the final at Roland Garros and Pete Sampras in the final at Wimbledon. He, too, is amazed at Djokovic's season.

"It really is hard to believe, when you consider the depth of the sport and physical demands," said Courier, the U.S. Davis Cup captain. "To remain healthy -- and fresh -- I mean, he's playing more matches than anyone, more meaningful matches.

"He's come through some tricky ones, too. He was down 4-1 and two breaks to [Nikolay] Davydenko in Montreal, and he never looked like he was going to lose. You can see the buildup of confidence coursing through his veins.

"He is the hands-down favorite in New York."

Djokovic left Cincinnati with a ludicrous 57-2 record, his only losses coming to Roger Federer in the semifinals at the French Open, which ended a 43-match winning streak, and Murray in Cincinnati. He is, as Courier said, the prohibitive favorite at U.S. Open, which starts next week.

"The world," Djokovic acknowledged, "is looking at me a bit differently."

His run to the title at Wimbledon allowed him cross off another item on his career to-do list. After four weeks off, Djokovic seemed quite serious about properly representing the No. 1 ranking.

"Being No. 1 is a big responsibility, not just on the court but off the court as well," he said in Montreal. "Just trying to handle it in the best possible way. I haven't changed my approach to my profession, to the sport, to my practices, to my matches. This is the way it is supposed to stay."

Djokovic also did something that hadn't happened in 18 years. He was the first man to win a title in his first appearance as the No. 1 player since Sampras won Hong Kong in 1993.

Lost in the pyrotechnics of that won-loss record -- one of the greatest seasons on record is definitely within Djokovic's reach -- is the prospect of collecting his third major of the year. In the 43 years of the Open era, that has happened only seven times.

True tennis fans can probably name most of them. Rod Laver's Grand Slam of 1969 is the only sweep in modern times, but Jimmy Connors (1974) and Mats Wilander (1988) followed the Rocket with three each. After a 16-year drought, Federer matched them in 2004 -- then repeated the feat in 2006 and 2007. Incidentally, Federer made all four major finals the last two times and again in 2009. Rafael Nadal won the last three Slams of 2010.

If Djokovic wins in New York, that would be five triples in a span of only eight years. By three players who are all contemporaries. The fact Djokovic has won eight of nine matches this year against Federer (3-1) and Nadal (5-0), makes the achievement more profound.

"Forget how great he's playing physically -- we could go on forever about that," Courier said. "I prefer to focus on the mental edge he has right now over Rafa and Roger.

"This is the first time someone's presented a puzzle to Rafa. He's being dominated right now, and that's never happened. The problem for Rafa, when he plays his normal great tennis, he's still losing. He's feeling like Federer has felt against Rafa. That's a new challenge for him, and a good challenge. I look forward to seeing how Rafa and Uncle Toni approach the next match."

The list of guys who reached three finals in a year but failed to win them all also is impressive. These Hall of Fame players won two majors and reached the final of a third: Bjorn Borg in 1978 and 1980; John McEnroe in 1984; Ivan Lendl in 1986 and 1987; Sampras in 1995; and Andre Agassi in 1999.

"Look, even though I have achieved my two biggest dreams in my tennis career, I'm still 24 and I still want to play tennis as long as I do have this inspiration and motivation in myself," Djokovic said.

"I'm aware of the fantastic year that I had and a great streak, but I'm not thinking how many matches will I lose, I'm thinking how many matches will I win? As long as it's like that, I think I'm in the right direction."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.