Is Novak Djokovic Still the Best Player in the World?

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistMay 31, 2013

May 28, 2013; Paris, France; Novak Djokovic (SRB) reacts during his match against David Goffin (BEL) on day three of the 2013 French Open at Roland Garros.   Mandatory Credit: Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports
Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

The past two years have been owned by Novak Djokovic.

Since steamrolling through the field at the 2011 Australian Open to grab his second major, Djokovic has won four more majors and eight Masters events and spent 84 weeks at No. 1.

In that same time frame, he has gone 8-3 against Rafael Nadal, 7-3 against Roger Federer and 7-4 against Andy Murray.

While unapologetically squashing questions about his emotional and physical fragility, Djokovic proved that he wasn’t just willing to compete in an era with two of the greatest players of all time; he was willing to join them.

But while Djokovic has felt like the man to beat for most of the last two years, this year's French Open is showing that this may no longer be the case. In fact, he is alarmingly under the radar for someone ranked No. 1 in the world.

Are we simply underestimating him, or is Novak Djokovic really no longer the best player in the world?

This probably wouldn't even be a question if it wasn't for the impossibly high standards that Djokovic has set for himself. In 2011, he came into the French Open undefeated on the year and having defeated Rafael Nadal in four straight Masters Series finals, including two on clay. His record-breaking streak was the talk of the tour.

In 2012, he held the Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open titles and went for the "Novak Slam" at Roland Garros. 

This year, he’s merely trying to complete his career slam. There’s no winning streak. He only has one Grand Slam currently in his possession. For any normal player, this would be a great year, but by Novak Djokovic's standards, it's merely been average.

He’s really shown his vulnerability in Masters events this year. He won a phenomenal five Masters events in 2012, and a slightly more more comprehensible three in 2012, but this year he’s only won one of the five Masters events played so far.

But the most striking thing is that his losses at the Masters haven't come against the Big Four. Instead, his losses have come to Juan Martin del Potro in the Indian Wells semifinals, Tommy Haas in the fourth round of Miami, Grigor Dimitrov in the second round of Madrid and Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals of Rome.

The last time Djokovic went two Masters Series in a row without making at least the semifinals was Indian Wells and Miami in 2010. There’s a reason that he came into Roland Garros as an afterthought—we haven’t seen Djokovic look this human in a long time.

His loss to Tomas Berdych in Rome two weeks ago was particularly troubling. Djokovic was up 6-2, 5-2 before losing the plot completely.

"I lost concentration and started to play more defensively," he said to the press afterward, pinpointing his two biggest issues this year.

When Novak Djokovic was unstoppable, it was because he was completely dialed in. He played every point, every game and every match against every opponent with a hyper-focus that is rarely seen, even in top athletes.

This otherworldly tennis tunnel vision allowed him to harness his defensive weapons and turn them into offensive prowess at just the right moment. Because he was so in tune with his body and his game, he always knew exactly when to pull the trigger.

This year, he hasn't always had that same focus, and it's shown.

He was rattled by the crowd in Madrid, blasted off the court by Haas in Miami and out-maneuvered by del Potro at Indian Wells. And as he neared the finish line in Rome against Berdych, a player he has dominated throughout his career, he simply faded away.

As Djokovic showed signs of weakness, Rafael Nadal won everything in sight.

Still, there have been moments of brilliance. Djokovic won the Australian Open for the third straight year by taking out a newly confident Andy Murray in the final. He dominated Nadal in Monte Carlo to win his sole Masters of the year. He's still No. 1 in the rankings by a wide margin—3,640 points over Murray, to be exact.

But in evaluating current form, I always look to the Emirates ATP Race to London standings, which only includes points from 2013. There Djokovic trails Nadal.

We're entering uncharted territory with Novak Djokovic. He's not unbeatable anymore, but he's still one of the top guys. To prove that he's really still the one to beat in 2013 and gain that top spot in the race back from Rafael Nadal, Djokovic has to harness his ability to focus and assert himself, even when he's not in the zone and it doesn't feel like the most natural thing in the world.

He has the talent; now it's just a matter of execution.

He's no longer the de facto best player in the world, but he has a chance to change that at this year's French Open.