Novak Djokovic has never been ranked higher than No. 3, but between January and mid-May, he was the best tennis player in the world. He was one-for-one at the majors, having taken the Australian Open in impressive style, losing only one set along the way.
He had won 40 percent of the Master’s Series events up to that point, taking the titles on the hard courts of Indian Wells and the clay in Rome. Only Rafael Nadal could match his Master’s Series achievements up to that point, and both of the Spaniard’s wins came on the clay courts of Monte Carlo and Hamburg.
Watching the Djoker pick up these big titles, and remembering his trips to the semis or better in 2007's last three majors, I began to imagine an Andre Agassi-esque or Jimmy Connors-like future for the Serbian.
Not in the sense that he plays like they did—he doesn’t hit as early or as cleanly—but seems to serve bigger and have better defensive movement. I was thinking in the sense that he can put up similar results.
Neither Connors nor Agassi were thoroughly dominant on a surface the way Federer is on grass and Nadal is on clay, but they could win in all venues—Agassi being the only man in the last four decades to win all four majors, and Connors being the only one to win the U.S. Open on hard, clay, and grass surfaces.
Connors’ achievements were somewhat overshadowed by those of Bjorn Borg, much as Agassi’s would be by Pete Sampras, but both were reliable Grand Slam presences for years and enjoyed longevity that their peers did not.
Likewise, no one, probably including Srđan and Dijana Djokovic, expects the Djoker to equal the achievements of Roger Federer or dominate one surface as comprehensively as Nadal.
However, I consider him likely to win a wider variety of titles than Nadal, and since he is younger than the Spaniard, he may get the Roland Garros title than eludes the Fed.
I considered him likely to do all of these things and was still expecting it as recently as August. Recent signs have been far less promising.
It was the Hamburg event in May where Djokovic’s fortunes began to turn for the worse. Though he pushed eventual champion Nadal to three sets, the Spaniard used his first Hamburg title as a springboard to his most dominant Roland Garros to date, then a Wimbledon title, and then an Olympic gold, making him the best bet to finish the year ranked No. 1.
That Marat Safin had the potential to beat Djokovic at Wimbledon is not altogether surprising, but for the Serb to lose in straight sets, 6-2 in the third, was a poor showing (the fact that he’d said Federer was “worried” about his chances of winning there just before the event was for many a delicious irony).
Over the summer, Andy Murray, whom Djokovic was dominating as recently as Monte Carlo, dealt the Serbian a huge pair of body blows in Canada and then Cincinnati.
Djokovic put forth perhaps his best performance of the summer in New York, decisively beating an in-form Andy Roddick in the U.S. Open quarters. That win, however, was overshadowed by his equally decisive loss to Federer in the semis and his ill-tempered griping at Roddick’s comments regarding Djokovic’s tendency toward injury.
After his top-ranking worthy spring, Djokovic has played like, at best, No. 4 in the world since Hamburg. Roddick’s remarks were cutting, but they expressed what many have wondered about Djokovic’s frequent injury timeouts.
The Serb’s response to them suggest that the player with the spot-on impersonations of Nadal’s wedgies and time-delay issues can dish it out, but is less adept at taking it.
Djokovic will, in all likelihood, be back at the winner’s circle in Grand Slam events in the future. The longer his slide continues, however, the more he leaves up to chance, regarding external circumstances and potential injuries that no on-court trainer can fix.
Who among us, after all, thought that the slide following Marat Safin’s 2000 breakthrough would last four-and-a-half years? Or that he’d never truly follow-up to his 2005 Australian Open win?
Djokovic needs to start putting up good results as soon as possible. Last fall, his results were unimpressive: semifinals in Madrid, first round in Paris, and 0-3 in Shanghai.
The upside of this is that he has few points to defend and has a realistic shot of overtaking Federer for the No. 2 position. For him to do so now would send a message that he will be in contention for the top spot in 2009.
He needs the momentum; he must defend a lot of points in the first half of next year, and the burden of defending a Grand Slam title in Australia is one he won’t be accustomed to facing.
Besides, after a disappointing (by his standards) 2008, Federer will be looking to reestablish the natural order as soon as possible. There’s no telling what Djokovic (or anyone else) would be able to do to counter a resurgent Fed, but establishing some momentum now couldn’t hurt.