Monday, September 12, 2011

Novak Djokovic cements the greatest year in men's tennis history

ON TENNIS



Novak Djokovic stood on the trophy stand, decked out in a red polo shirt and an FDNY hat.

He looked more like a fireman than a tennis player, and for a couple minutes at least, he could have been mistaken for one rather than the greatest tennis player in the world.

Then he was handed the U.S. Open trophy, and there was no ambiguity.

Standing in the middle of the largest tennis stadium in the world stood a 24-year-old who, undoubtedly, has put together the most impressive season in the history of men’s tennis.

“The greatest year we’ve ever seen in the sport of tennis,” said John McEnroe, who had the only comparable season in 1984.

After overcoming the incredibly resilient Rafael Nadal — in McEnroe’s words, “the greatest effort player” in tennis history — in a four-hour, four-set match 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 Monday to win his first Open, Djokovic is 64-2 in 2011, has 10 titles and won three of the year’s four majors, becoming just the sixth player in history to accomplish that.

Those numbers don’t do his year justice, however. Most impressively, he’s 6-0 against Nadal (all in finals), defeating the former world No. 1 and winner of three slams a year ago on every surface. On Monday, Djokovic imposed his will on Nadal, took the Spaniard’s best punch over and over again, suffered a back injury going into the fourth set, and then dominated and, ultimately, broke Nadal’s spirit at the end.

This came just two days after, let’s not forget, hitting what McEnroe termed “one of the greatest all-time shots in tennis history” Saturday against Roger Federer when he faced double match point and rifled a return forehand crosscourt. On the following point, Djokovic fought off a Federer serve that was coming right at him, won the point to force deuce, and never looked back in completing an epic, improbable comeback from two sets down.

No one could ever have imagined such a season from Djokovic. Three years ago, he was criticized and deemed childish for his impersonations of top players, who didn’t much like his mocking. Two years ago, he was swept in straight sets at the Open by Federer and, I wrote then, simply wasn’t as tough mentally as Federer or Nadal.

Now? Djokovic has the mental fortitude that has won Federer 16 majors and Nadal 10. And, oh, by the way, Djokovic has four.

“What this guy’s doing is an unbelievable thing,” the always-gracious Nadal said post-match. “What you’ve done this year is probably impossible to repeat.”

That’s very possible, but Djokovic’s performances won’t begin tailing off anytime soon. He’s in his prime, and Monday he demonstrated why he’s been so dominantly consistent all season.

Never showing signs of collapsing, Djokovic broke Nadal a ridiculous 10 times, influencing McEnroe to say he’s never seen a better returner of serve. His scintillating forehands dropping at the feet of Nadal and nicking the baseline didn’t disprove this.

If Nadal didn’t get his first serves in, it was advantage Djokovic every time.

Nadal has worn down players his entire career with long, grueling, side-to-side rallies. Not Djokovic. Instead, he dictated the majority of the points with his pinpoint, flat groundstrokes.

Most importantly, Djokovic never let the pro-Nadal (or, rather, pro-“I want to see more tennis!”) crowd get to him despite constant outbursts during and before points. He never was mentally affected by the swings in momentum Nadal created with his incredible defense and shot-making.

And when Nadal finally broke through to win the third set in a tiebreak with his best, most aggressive tennis of the afternoon/night, Djokovic — despite feeling back pain — pulled out a deuce game on serve to begin the fourth, took a medical timeout to tend to the back, and then proceeded to clinically destroy and finally dethrone the proud defending champion.

By the final game, the ending had been written inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. Djokovic’s forehands were too perfectly placed. His returns kept tangling Nadal’s feet. Djokovic has never been talked about for his fitness, but Nadal was the one who seemed worn down from the four hours, 20-shot rallies and multiple-deuce games Djokovic pushed him to on his serve. He was done.

Not that he’ll get it with Davis Cup matches next weekend, but Djokovic deserves some rest. In three days, he played nine sets against the top two players of their generation, coming back from two sets and two match points down against Federer with the gutsiest shot-making you’ll ever see and then outlasting Nadal in what McEnroe called the most physical tennis match he’s ever seen at the Open.

64-2. 3 major titles. 6-0 vs. Nadal.

With those 2011 numbers, Novak Djokovic won’t be fading into oblivion anytime soon.

Rather, he should be gracing the covers of magazines.

Probably in his recognizable tennis outfit — not that the polo & hat didn’t fit.

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