Written by: Michael Emmett
***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.***
Last year, Novak Djokovic had one of the best years in tennis history, winning 3 Grand Slams and beating Rafael Nadal 6 consecutive times – all of those in major finals. A season many considered the best of all time, especially when you factor in the competition – namely Federer, Nadal and Murray! The question heard most often at the water coolers is “can he do it again.”
In the early stages of the first slam of the year – the hot topic is centered on Djokovic and his ability to dominate like he did last year. Was it a fluke? Many of the tennis pundits are predicting a more balanced winner’s circle – similar to what we’ve seen in the last few years on the Women’s tour. Some have suggested 4 winners instead of such domination by one player.
Djokovic struggled at the end of the last season. At one point he had an incredible 64-2 record – but he stumbled down the stretch and ended with a healthy 70-6 record – losing 4 of his last 10 matches. Did he run out of gas? Was he slightly injured? Did he not like the fast indoor surfaces in the final 3 months of the season? Or was it a combination of all those factors. Whatever it was, and it was surely something significant, the Serbian missile, with the gluten free diet – will be on a mission to repeat his jaw dropping season in 2011.
Most of the top players on tour feel like it was an anomaly and believe it won’t be repeated. Remember what Nadal said after losing to Nole in yet another grand slam 6 months ago at Wimbledon? “My experience says this level is not forever. Even for me when I was last year winning three Grand Slams, my level of last year is not forever. Probably the level of Novak of today is not forever.”
In the history of the game, only 6 players have made it to 3 major finals in back-to-back years. So for Djokovic to become the 7th – he would need to make it to the finals in 3 of the 4 Grand Slam championships in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York. The only event he failed to reach the finals in 2011 was in Paris at Roland Garros when he lost in 4 sets to Roger Federer.
Can Djokovic win six matches in 3 of the four major cities in 2012 and do something only a select few have accomplished?
We shall see.
Winning three majors – even reaching three Grand Slam finals – in a single year is exceedingly difficult. Backing it up with another finals three-peat is even tougher. In the past 50-plus years, a handful of men have done it.
Before Nadal’s 2010 Grand Slam-fest and his win and two runner-up finishes in 2011, there was Roger Federer. In the midst of his unprecedented mastery, he did it four years in a row, from 2006-09, winning nine of 15 major finals. The last one before him – way back in the 80s was Ivan Lendl.
Reaching 3-plus major finals
Lendl’s degree of difficulty was impressive because in 1986, the Australian Open wasn’t held. He made all three major finals that season, winning in Paris and New York, before losing to Boris Becker at Wimbledon. In 1987, the same scenario played out, with Lendl falling to Pat Cash at the All England Club.
Lendl has been in the news lately as he’s taken on the task of coaching Andy Murray. Lendl believes, like some of the big-name coaches who are currently in Melbourne, that the majors are wide open and Djokovic won’t be the same player as he was in 2011.
“Backing it up, it’s so physically and mentally demanding,” Lendl said. “It takes so much out of you. Djokovic – you could just kind of see him tiring down the stretch. It will be interesting to see how he comes out in 2012.”
The bar has been set really high for all these guys. For Djokovic to repeat, it would be a remarkable achievement. But at a certain point, there’s weariness from all of that winning and all of that pressure. Novak, in my opinion was the athlete of the year in 2011, not just in tennis but in any sport. Can he do it again? I doubt it. His effort was Herculean in 2011 and it’s just too big of a mountain to climb in 2012.
Pete Sampras – winner of 14 grand slams – wasn’t good enough to do it! He reached three major finals in 1995 (winning two), but advanced to only one in 1996, winning at the U.S. Open. Jim Courier reached three Grand Slam finals in 1993 (winning one); his best effort in 1994 was two semifinals. Mats Wilander won three of four majors in 1988, but one year later he could manage only two appearances in the quarterfinals. In his great season of 1984, John McEnroe made three major finals, winning two, but followed that up with a single semifinal at Roland Garros and lost to Lendl in the U.S. Open final.
With all due respect to the stars of the past, it’s quite possible (more likely PROBABLE) that this is the best men’s tennis has ever been, particularly at the very top. Three different men have captured three majors in a single season in the past five years, something we’ve never seen and may never see again. And even with Federer, 30, clearly past his prime, he’s still a threat – a large one. And because of this brilliance at the top of the game, this makes Djokovic’s task that much harder.