Tuesday, September 13, 2011

First Roger Federer, Then Rafael Nadal, And Now Novak Djokovic - Greatest Era Of Men's Tennis Ever?

There have been a lot of great players in the history of tennis, and occasionally a few of those all-time greats have overlapped their playing careers.  This has allowed for some pretty memorable matches.  Borg-McEnroe, Sampras-Agassi, and Federer-Nadal are just a few of men's tennis' greatest rivalries.

Roger Federer, with 16 Grand Slam titles, is going to go down as one of the greatest players of all time, and last many were also given that accolade to Rafael Nadal (10 Slam titles).

Indeed, no one had Federer's number quite like Nadal.  At first, it was simply the clay courts where Nadal dominated.  Their head-to-head record is 17-8 in Nadal's favor, and 14 of those wins for Nadal came on clay courts.  Nadal leads Federer 6-2 in Grand Slam finals (again, mostly on clay).

Nadal had an amazing 2010 season, winning three of the four Slams (French, Wimbledon, and US Open), and was beginning to solidify his reputation as one of the best tennis players ever as his overall game improved on all surfaces.

However, a new dominant figure appeared in tennis in 2011: Novak Djokovic.  Djokovic had been very good for several years (usually ranked #3 in the world), but had never been able to break through to the top ranking or beaten either Federer or Nadal (before 2011, was 7-16 against Nadal, and 6-13 against Federer).

His loss in the 2010 US Open Finals against Nadal seemed to propel him into greater heights.  He took his largely defensive game into a more offensive style.  He altered his diet. He improved his fitness.  More important, he fixed his attitude, which had been sullen and negative at times.

"I guess it just clicked in my head. Through the last couple of years, I didn't change my game in any major way. ... But I'm hitting shots that maybe I wasn't hitting," he explained. "I'm going for it. I'm more aggressive."

When 2011 started, Djokovic found a level of tennis that seemed impossible to sustain. Not only did he win the Australian Open (prior to 2011, it had been his only Slam title), but he also won all the smaller ATP Masters tournaments.

Along the way, he faced Federer and Nadal several times. Remember, these two are supposed to be two of the greatest of all-time.  Here's the 2011 results:

Australian Open -  Defeated Federer in semis 7-6, 7-5, 6-4.
Dubai Championship - Defeated Federer in Finals 6-3, 6-3
Indian Wells - Defeated Federer in Semis  6-3, 3-6, 6-2
                      Defeated Nadal in Finals 4-6, 6-3, 6-2
Sony Ericsson Open - Defeated Nadal in Finals 4-6, 6-3, 7-6
Madrid Open - Defeated Nadal in Finals 7-5. 6-4
Rome Masters - Defeated Nadal in Finals 6-4, 6-4
French Open - Lost to Federer in Semis 6-7, 3-6, 6-3, 6-7
Wimbledon - Defeated Nadal in Finals 6-4, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3
US Open - Defeated Federer in Semis 6-7, 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5
                 Defeated Nadal in Finals 6-2, 6-4, 6-7, 6-1

So in ONE tennis season (that isn't even over yet), Djokovic has gone 4-1 against Federer, and 6-0 against Nadal.  What does that say about a player who so thoroughly dominates two of the best players to EVER play the game over an entire season?

Obviously, Djokovic has to play well and win more majors in the future in order to be considered an all-time great.  His 2011 season will most likely go down as the greatest individual season that a men's tennis player has ever had.  It's even more impressive considering the competition.  Men's tennis was already top-heavy before Djokovic broke through, and his leap-frog to the top of the pack has made tennis that much more interesting.

We are clearly witnessing an era of men's tennis that may never come again.  While Federer (who is five years older than Nadal) is on that latter stages of his career, he is still playing at a very high level and could still win a major.  Nadal is at his peak, and Djokovic, one year younger than Nadal, is playing super-human right now.

It's a great time to be a tennis fan.

No comments: