2007 was a year of promise for Novak Djokovic, who was laying the groundwork for a very successful tennis career. He won in Miami, reached the semis of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon, then won in Canada and made the U.S. Open final.
When he won the 2008 Australian Open, it appeared he had cashed in on those investments.
But if the last year has taught us anything, it’s how uncertain investments can be: After winning in Australia last year, Djokovic later went six months without a win and fell far short of defending his title in January.
Recent signs, however, suggest that Nole is regaining the spirit of 2007. He has made two consecutive finals at Master’s Series events, taking out Roger Federer in Miami and pushing four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal to three sets in Monte Carlo.
His ascent is not complete, nor has he evolved into the "Man to Beat." But, just as he primed himself for a major breakthrough with steady results in 2007, the Serb is showing the dedication required to put up solid results. The confidence he builds now could be critical to his chances in Paris, London, or New York.
And after Monte Carlo, Nole has reason for confidence—He gutted out two tough wins over Fernando Verdasco and then Stanislas Wawrinka, who was fresh off his upset victory over Federer. He then held his ground in the final against Nadal, becoming the first player to win a set from the Spaniard in Monte Carlo since 2006.
If he can trade groundstrokes with Nadal on clay, it bodes well for Nole’s hopes on grass and on hard.
Let’s break down his chances at the year’s remaining events, using his results from the past couple of years as a guideline.
Roland Garros: 2007 – semifinals; 2008 – semifinals
In 2007 Djokovic reached his first Grand Slam semi here, battling back from down two sets to one to beat Oliver Patience in round three. As one of the last four remaining, he fell to Nadal, 7-5, 6-4, 6-2.
Last year he reached the semis after dropping only one set. He was then felled again by Nadal, winning just one more game: 6-4, 6-2, 7-6. It was still a better performance from the Serb, especially considering the imperious form Nadal showed at last year’s event (Nole actually won more games against the Spaniard than anyone at the event).
It was also more disappointing, though, as Djokovic had said before the match that simply giving Nadal a good contest—in other words, not winning—wasn’t good enough for him.
This year, Djokovic was clearly the second best player in Monte Carlo. If he can maintain that form, then his results in Paris largely depend on his draw.
He was seeded No. 3 last year, and Nadal No. 2, which is why they met in the semis. This year he’s currently third, but likely to slip to fourth because Andy Murray has fewer points to defend during the clay season. Therefore, with the same seeding system in place, Nole’s likely opponent in the semis would be the No. 1 seed, who would be…uh-oh.
Wimbledon: 2007 - semifinals; 2008 - round 2
Djokovic’s performance here in ’07 was an indication of how great an all-court, all-surface player he’d become. It also displayed his competitive instincts, as he dispatched both Lleyton Hewitt and Marcos Baghdatis in tough contests. Unfortunately, it also revealed a more unfortunate tendency of his, as he retired in the semis against Nadal, despite it being one set-all.
In ’08, it was perhaps the letdown from the disappointing RG result, plus a one-in-a-thousand draw assignment with an in-form Marat Safin, that led to a shocking early exit.
Wimbledon, where the surface takes unpredictable bounces and the atmosphere is wholly traditional, may be the worst fit of any major for both Djokovic’s game and personality. Still, there’s no reason for him to go out of any Grand Slam event in round two, and we suspect he’s learned his lesson.
Look for another semifinal performance.
U.S. Open: 2007 – final; 2008 – semifinal
This event represents Nole’s best chance at a major title this year. It’s also the major that tends to summarize the kind of year Djokovic has had.
In ’07, he reached the final, pushing Federer to two tiebreakers but not quite sealing the deal. This showed him to be a rising star that needed time to adjust to the big stage.
In ’08, he again dueled Federer, staying nearly even with the great Swiss for three sets, until Federer made his move, taking the third set 7-5. The Serb’s resolve dissipated after that, as the Swiss ran away with the fourth 6-2.
This result showed that Djokovic still had the shots, but that something else—The head? The heart?—was missing.
So much is unknown for this year’s event: Will Nadal have anything left in the tank for the Open? Will Federer have hit his stride by then? If not, this event will come down to the Serb and the Scot: Djokovic vs. Murray.
Even in the event that the Open is a four-way crapshoot, a U.S. Open final or better for Nole seems attainable.
Due to his results in ’07-early ’08, Djokovic probably built a greater amount of pressure for himself than he was prepared to deal with. Some of the statements he made along the way—saying that he planned to be No. 1 and that Federer was “vulnerable” at last year’s Wimbledon—probably didn’t help.
Now the weight has shifted, and it’s primarily on Murray (who’s seeking a Grand Slam) and Nadal (who’s seeking all of them). Thanks to eyes diverted elsewhere, Djokovic appears primed to regain his promise.