Michael Emmett: “Is It the Greatest Year Ever?”

Written by: Michael Emmett

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***Michael Emmett is the Director of Tennis Operations at all Mayfair clubs.  He is a certified Tennis Canada Coach 3 with a Journalism degree from the University of Texas. Michael spent several years working in sports television at TSN and Sportsnet.  Michael is a former National champion who finished his last year of junior tennis ranked #1 in Canada.  Michael has coached several National champions when he worked for the All-Canadian Academy at the National Tennis Centre at York University in the early 90s.  Michael spent 2 years traveling the world playing the ATP tour satellite circuit as a member of the Molson National Team in 1985 and ’86.***

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Novak Djokovic is closing in on what most experts are calling the greatest tennis season ever. I believe if he goes on to win the season-ending tour championship – it will be the greatest year in the history of the sport. It has been on some levels unbelievable and incredible at the same time.  Rafael Nadal – on that final Monday in New York after a crushing US Open loss – said this kind of year will never be repeated.  At times, Djokovic looked Herculean and immortal.

Djokovic has been so good it’s almost unimaginable to be so dominant and so convincing in many of his 64 wins this year.  The competition is as deep as ever – to win 97 percent of his matches is so unlikely yet so impressive.  At this point there is no question he will win every conceivable “Sportsman of the Year” awards – whether it’s Sports Illustrated, ESPN or the Man of the year presented by Laureus! He is the most dominant man is sports in 2011.  No doubt, it’s as clear cut as it’s ever been.

Djoker has won three of the four major championships — the sixth man in the Open Era to accomplish the feat.  He has lost just two matches all year, and won 64.  His win percentage at this point of the season is the best ever (see below).  And his loss in Cincinnati prior to the US Open would not have happened if the match had significance.  Nole was just taking the ‘high road’ as a precaution days before the start of the US Open – and who could blame him.  This is a match he would have won – no question about it – if it meant something.  But it was ‘just another match’ and he decided to save his body and quit mid-way through against Andy Murray in the final match in Ohio.

Best win-loss percentage

Open Era Tennis
2011 Novak Djokovic 64-2 (.970)
1984 John McEnroe 82-3 (.965)
1974Jimmy Connors 93-4 (.959)
2005 Roger Federer 81-4 (.953)
2006 Roger Federer 92-5 (.948)

Djokovic has dominated in an astonishing time in men’s tennis, when Roger Federer (greatest ever?) is still playing supremely well – maybe the best tennis of his life, when Rafael Nadal (greatest ever?) is still at the height of his powers, when Andy Murray plays awe-inspiring tennis, when tournament fields are loaded with huge servers and crushing baseliners.

Last month, in the U.S. Open final, Djokovic played a grueling four-set match with Nadal that featured several of the most spectacular points I can remember seeing – it was draining to watch as a fan. I couldn’t believe the number of penetrating, blistering balls being tagged from corner to corner. This was a boxing match – played with tennis racquets. Trading punch after punch after punch – but the majority of these punches were lethal.  But no-one backed down.   These two guys were relentless in their pursuit of power and precision.  It was beautiful tennis, it was one of the best matches ever played – yet, it will not be remembered as a classic because the score was very one-sided – Djoker won in 4 sets and 2 of those sets would be considered blowouts if you didn’t see the match.  Unfortunately, to be labeled a classic – there is an unwritten rule for tennis historians- it must go 5 sets.  Not my rule – just a rule that tennis aficionados adhere to.

There was never really a moment’s doubt who was the better player. Nadal is pretty close to unbeatable by anybody else — he has defeated Federer all three times they have played this year, beaten Murray all four times, and he gave up only six games to Andy Roddick in New York — but Djokovic’s game broke him apart. It took everything Nadal had inside (and Nadal has a considerable sporting soul) just to extend the match to four sets.  Djokovic is beating the game’s best – maybe of all-time – with relative ease.  This guy is playing ridiculous tennis – some would say miraculous.

The guy has so much confidence that he can be down 5-4 (40-15) in the fifth set to the game’s all-time Grand Slam champion (Roger Federer) and swing with his eyes closed on one of Fed’s patented swinging wide serves and crack a winner.  This shot – one for the ages – was traveling at 110 MPH one inch over the net and a millimeter from the far sideline.  This – in some circles – is the greatest shot in Grand Slam history especially considering the fact it was executed on match point.  Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, would ever try this shot at any stage of the match.  This shot was so far fetched and imaginative – it just proves to me and the tennis world that Djokovic believes he can hit any shot, at any time, anywhere and as hard as he likes.  That is the definition of CONFIDENCE.  And if it continues, he will be unbeatable for the foreseeable future.

Federer is playing better tennis now than he was 3 years ago.  Federer has won 16 majors playing at a level below his current form.  But now, the new and improved Federer – the one with the lethal backhand – is struggling to even get to Grand Slam finals.  The reason – Novak Djokovic!

The two have been scheduled to play each other in 11 of the last 12 grand slam semi-finals.  So much for the coin toss!  With Federer being ranked #3 in the world – he will either come up against Nadal or Djokovic in the semi-finals in all grand slam events.  11 of the last 12 is a mathematical long shot at best – the probability is 10,000 to 1. One wonders (aloud) if this coin toss is actually happening – or is it being fixed?

Federer has improved immensely over the last 18 months but he can’t beat Djokovic – blowing 2 match points in each of the last 2 US Opens is proof of that fact.  With each win, Djokovic just gains more confidence.  He is 10 and 1 this season against Nadal and Federer – are you kidding me? These 2 guys were once thought of as unbeatable.  Yet, Djokovic has beaten these all-time legends a record double digit times in one season.  Nole has won 14 out of 18 sets against Nadal and beaten him in 6 straight finals.  His only loss came to Federer in the semi-finals at Roland Garros – but he still holds a 4-1 edge in the 2011 season winning 11 of 17 sets against the Swiss superstar.

John McEnroe’s 1984 season seems to be the one that many considered the best until Djokovic. McEnroe went 84-3 and won two Grand Slam titles. It was a ridiculously great season. His win over Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon was absurd domination; he won 6-1, 6-1, 6-2. Prior to that he rolled through the French Open, losing just one set all the way to the final, where he had Ivan Lendl down two sets and a break. And that’s when Lendl, who had a reputation for giving up when things weren’t going well, made his stand, broke back, won the third set and eventually beat a shattered McEnroe in five (though McEnroe wasn’t too shattered — he destroyed Lendl in the final of the U.S. Open). In all, McEnroe won 13 tournaments and lost just three matches all year.

I really like what Djokovic said when asked about his season being the best ever: “It’s just so hard to compare different eras – I think there are numerous players who can be considered the best ever or to have had the greatest season ever.”

I often throw around the word “ever” lightly (some would say I like to exaggerate! — This player’s the best ever, that coach is the best ever, that game was the best ever — and I probably shouldn’t.  We tend to focus on the NOW and forget all the great players of generations past.

In the last few years, just in tennis, we have wondered if Federer is the greatest ever, Nadal is the greatest ever; Djokovic is having the greatest season ever. Maybe this is just one of those odd and wonderful times in tennis where the top players keep pushing each other higher and higher into a stratosphere never before reached in the sport.  There is no question – the Men’s game is at the highest of highs – and as a gigantic fan I hope it stays like this well into the next decade.

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