Novak Djokovic is in the process of putting together what could, in hindsight, be seen as the greatest achievement in tennis in a calendar year and, as a result, speculation and doubts will have their day.
Questions are being asked and answers are being sought—some people are looking for a new Messiah, while others are determined for things to return to how they used to be. Some will stop at nothing to deride and discredit, while others, aware that tennis works in cycles, believe (or perhaps hope) that this is the dawn of something new and exciting.
There are three pertinent questions regarding Novak Djokovic that ought to be answered before any surmises about his future can be made:
- Can Djokovic keep up his level of performance so far in 2011 for consecutive years?
- If yes, can Djokovic be one of the best of all time?
- Do the chances of any of these things happening depend, in any way whatsoever, on the hope that Rafael Nadal remains unable to bounce back against Djokovic?
Let's see to these questions.
1. Can Djokovic keep up his level of performance so far in 2011 for consecutive years?
I don't see why not. It is certainly the expectation that he will continue where he has left off. However, the key word is 'expectation'.
Not all expectations are realistic. Djokovic's game is based on consistency and the potent mix between a 'nothing to lose' attitude and the 'I will pull it off' mindset. Djokovic needs to be on top of his game (depth-wise, positioning-wise, etc) every time he plays. You never see him taking a break. Now, that's certainly achievable for a year, a year and a half—but not much longer.
Yes, Djokovic can play out-of-this-world tennis—but what happens when he gets drained?
So, can Djokovic keep up his 2011 level of performance? For a while perhaps, but it can't (and shouldn't) last.
2. If yes, can Djokovic be one of the best of all time?
Djokovic's chances of becoming one of the best of all time will depend on his ability to win Grand Slam titles when he is not playing up to his 2011 standards.
So, what are Djokovic's chances of winning when he is sub-par? It's hard to say. While Djokovic has enough (and extra) to win when he plays up to his potential (as we have seen this year), why couldn't he win during his sub-par seasons like 2009 and 2010?
Barring Rafael Nadal's two extraordinary seasons (2008 and 2010), the Spainaird still managed to win a slam a year from 2005-07 and also in 2011.
The slams that differentiate a player from the pack are the ones you win when far from your best. Why? Well, frankly speaking, playing lights-out tennis for two weeks in a Grand Slam tournament—while being the name of the game—is a feat that can be achieved by any random self-respecting professional who applies himself. Achieving this feat when at 60-70 percent is the real test of greatness.
Can Djokovic be one of the best of all time? Yes he can, but to achieve this he'll have to cultivate the ability to win when not at his best.
3. Do the chances of any of these things happening depend, in any way whatsoever, on the hope that Rafael Nadal remains unable to fully bounce back against Djokovic?
Unfortunately, yes, that seems to be the case. And, again unfortunately, such a situation is not the healthiest of foundations to build the dreams and aspirations of a career upon.
Watching Djokovic play Nadal, it must be admitted that there are undertones defining the match-up that say—even before the first swing of the racket is made—that for Novak to defeat Nadal, Nadal must oblige to defeat.
There are subtle differences between defeating a player who hadn't reached his peak (Nadal defeating Djokovic in the years 2009 and 2010) and defeating a player who failed to play up to his abilities (Djokovic defeating Nadal this year).
Although both cases depend, in some shape or form, on the losing player not being at his best, the latter depends on the losing player's complacency while the former depends on the losing player's naivete. It is easier to correct complacency than to overcome naivety.
Do Djokovic's chances of being one of the best of all time depend on Nadal failing to fully bounce back from his losses this year? Yes they do. There has been an element of complacency with Nadal in some of his losses to Novak this year. However, Nadal is not, at this stage, naive.
All in all, can Novak Djokovic be one of the best of all time? Yes he can, but he will have learn to win when he's below par because Nadal—his biggest rival—may get complacent at times, but he won't ever be naive.