Novak Djokovic: Ranking His 2011 Among the Greatest Years in Tennis History

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistFebruary 20, 2012

Novak Djokovic: Ranking His 2011 Among the Greatest Years in Tennis History

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    Novak Djokovic's historic 2011 season has produced several debates with tennis fans trying to rank his dominance. It's a particularly subjective argument amongst supporters of Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer who can justifiably frame their own perspectives. And it's a great opportunity to rub memories with the other recent and legendary champions. All of this is great for tennis, even as it continues evolving to unprecedented heights. 

    Just two months ago, B/R featured columnist J.A. Allen produced an excellent statistical analysis of the most dominant seasons of the Open Era. Readers are encouraged to visit or review this list to appreciate the details to these dominating seasons.

    This article will feature some comments made from other tennis legends and contemporaries regarding historic individual seasons. It will attempt to provide other angles, flavor and devil's advocate arguments amongst fans.

    This is also an invitation for tennis fans to add their own memories or unique perspectives to why they would make a case for one champion's season or another. We will not all agree, but through the solicitation of viewpoints, we can come to some sort of consensus.

    With Djokovic's bid to hold all four Grand Slams for the first time since Rod Laver, we will continue to update this ongoing conversation.

12. Ivan Lendl's Greatest Season Was Ignored In1986

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    Maybe Rodney Dangerfield best described Ivan Lendl in 1986: no respect. There were other great sports stories such as the Super Bowl Bears, Larry Bird's legendary Celtics, Jack Nicklaus' last Masters title and the drama of the New York Mets-Boston Red Sox World Series. Lendl did not possess the charisma to carve out his own story.

    Players were slow to give Lendl credit. In 1984, after McEnroe's famous two sets to zero collapse to Lendl in the French Open final, McEnroe said it was Lendl's fitness—not his talent—that allowed him to win.

    By 1986, Lendl had obliterated John McEnroe and stood alone as the No. 1 player. Mats Wilander simply did not have the offensive weapons to dictate play against Lendl, and Stefan Edberg was limited from the baseline. It felt like Lendl couldn't be beat, but could only lose if he was uncharacteristically having an off day.

    Lendl's bitter defeat to Boris Becker at Wimbledon is the story most tennis fans remember that year. Even while acknowledging Becker's superiority on grass, it still felt like a major upset.

    Though Lendl easily captured the French and U.S. Open titles, he was denied an opportunity at the Australian Open, which did not host its event that year.

    Lendl's power topspin from the baseline helped change tennis for better or worse by making it difficult for competitors to set up shots off his serve and volley. He had the tools to turn many approach shots into screaming winners. His level of fitness and dedication were also ahead of its time.

    Perhaps he could have thrived better a decade or two later with racket technology favoring his skills.

11. Roger Federer Dropped Two Big Matches in 2005

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    Coming off his spectacular 2004 campaign, Roger Federer threatened to annihilate the field. The tennis world sensed this seismic shift after a half decade of tennis mediocrity. The time was ending for older players like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi to swipe a title or two.

    Talented but flawed players like Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero would find their Grand Slam windows slammed firmly shut. The Federer era was in full swing.

    How great? People began talking about the possibility of Federer winning the Grand Slam in January. Mark Hodgkinson's article in January, 2005 related a Daily Telegraph interview in which Rod Laver called Federer "an unbelievable talent" and "could be the greatest player of all time."

    Federer seemed invincible after destroying Andre Agassi in the Aussie quarterfinals, a match that was over in about an hour.

    So it was a complete shock when Marat Safin played the match of his life and upset Federer with a 9-7 fifth-set win.

    Then, Federer lost the French Open to an unknown 18-year-old named Rafael Nadal. It seemed the season was slipping away, some already calling it a failure.

    At Wimbledon, Federer regrouped with an awesome title performance against Andy Roddick, and, at the U.S. Open, he met up with sentimental favorite, Andre Agassi.

    Agassi turned back the clock like it was 1994, but could only manage to win one set. Afterwards, Agassi remarked that Federer was the best he had ever played: "There's a sense of urgency on every point, every shot."

    Maybe 82-4 did seem like a disappointment, but it's not too shabby.

10. Bjorn Borg's Nearly Magical Season of 1979

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    Bjorn Borg is arguably the most fascinating player in tennis history. His talent was so complete perhaps only Roger Federer and Rod Laver could rival his array of skills. He generated unreal topspin with a tiny wooden racket that was strung at about 90 pounds.

    Bud Collins said (perhaps tongue in cheek) that Borg would wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of his racket strings breaking.

    Since Borg, like many other stars in the 1970s, virtually skipped the Australian Open, he never really qualified to win the Grand Slam. But the biggest question is why Borg couldn't win the U.S. Open. Yes, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors each defeated him twice at the Open, but how?

    Borg, like Ivan Lendl, did seem to struggle against left-handers. In 1979, Borg swept away Jimmy Connors six times of six matches, but big-serving lefty Roscoe Tanner proved problematic. Tanner took Borg to five sets at Wimbledon, and then knocked Borg out in the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

    Maybe it was the pressure and rowdiness of the New York crowds, but by all accounts Borg was a cool competitor who thrived under pressure. Then again, Borg seemingly quit after losing back-to-back Grand Slam Finals to McEnroe in 1981.

    Did Borg lack the heart and competitive fire of modern superstars? I don't think so, but the question has to be asked.

    Borg was the only player I would watch on the 40-year-old tour in 1994. His two-handed swing would smoothly release his off hand at the finish of the stroke. It looked like he could battle Agassi right then and there.

    Curry Kirkpatrick's profile of Borg listed some comments by Arthur Ashe, who said Borg could have won the Grand Slam, but "the historical challenge didn't mean anything."

9. Roger Federer's Four-Year Masterpiece Completed in 2007

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    By 2007, Roger Federer's beautiful tennis still left questions. He had been so great, but had not won a fifth-set heavyweight fight. If he was pushed by other great champions, could he come through?

    Or was he just the greatest front runner against a moderately weak group of contemporaries?

    Watching Federer destroy the tennis field was breathtaking, but there were fans who wanted to see him challenged.

    Wimbledon provided this epic match that would prove to be Federer's greatest triumph. It needed Rafael Nadal to bring out the best in Federer and to pull out his fifth straight Wimbledon championship.

    Though Federer won three Grand Slams for the final time, winning 12 titles in just over three years, 2007 foreshadowed stiffer competition—mainly because of Federer—and a few vulnerable areas in his game. He played just a touch more defensively and was more reluctant to go to the net.

    The statistics show this in Marv Salter's "Attacking Federer." Federer realized he could win from the baseline and other players were taking more chances to disrupt his rhythm.

    A player is truly great when we try to find fractures in winning three Grand Slam titles.

8. Pete Sampras Reached His Peak by 1994

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    Nobody would rationally dispute that Pete Sampras was the greatest player of the 1990s. This was a tough time to dominate because of a strong mix of seasoned champions, many with specialized skill sets for different surfaces. Sampras is the only player from that decade who dominated tennis as thoroughly as other champions in other decades.

    After Sampras captured Wimbledon in 1994, he had won four of five Grand Slam titles. His opponents found it nearly impossible to break serve. There were a few players who served harder, but Sampras had uncanny precision to control his serve and produce aces when he needed it most.

    Sampras backed up his serve with an excellent single backhand, great athleticism around the net, and a running one-hand forehand that has only been recently matched from some of the top players. He was great enough to duel baseline players like Agassi and Courier, but the rest of his offensive game put him at a ridiculous level.

    The U.S. Open in 1994 halted some of his momentum, as he couldn't battle through injury. This coincided with Andre Agassi's brief rise and the apex of their rivalry.

    In 1997, Boris Becker, one of the former kings of Wimbledon, admitted that Pete was the best on about any surface, saying, "...his tennis doesn't have any flaws. He's probably better than anybody who ever played the game."

7. Rod Laver's Grand Slam Season Is Gold Standard Since 1969

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    I was not around to watch Rod Laver and have only seen him in clips. I'm fully aware of his double Grand Slam sweeps. Yet the more I examine his record and competitors, the more questions I find. I do not wish to be a contrarian by placing him at seventh on this list, but his level of domination was not as thorough as some of the seasons from other tennis legends.

    Four Grand Slams has not been done since, but competition is fiercer now. Is Bill Russell the greatest NBA player because he won eight straight titles?

    Are the 1972 Miami Dolphins the greatest team in NFL history because they had a perfect record?

    While those are the gold standards, they must be taken in context.

    Laver was a fantastic, all-tool player who played aggressively on every surface. He's a hybrid of Jimmy Connors' aggressiveness, John McEnroe's genius and Roger Federer's shot-making. He was absolutely the best player of his time and may have been denied at least 20 Grand Slams.

    Cliff Drysdale remarked that while all of the players of Laver's time played a similar game, it was Laver who could come up with shots "like Federer."

    It's astounding that Laver played 122 matches in 1969. Laver won 18 of 32 tournaments, but did lose 16 times that year. At least he was "good enough" to win four Grand Slams. Any tennis player would wish to be that dominant.

6. Rafael Nadal Out-Fierced the Field in 2010

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    Rafael Nadal's magnum opus featured three consecutive Grand Slam titles against a rapidly improving and deep field in tennis. Following personal trials in 2009, Nadal found his stride in the 2010 clay court season and never looked back. His pugilistic style brought so much intensity to each match that even his detractors grudgingly admired his heart and effort.

    Plus, he continued to carve out his legacy as the greatest clay court player ever—Bjorn Borg fans are the only ones allowed to dissent—and a reputation for fitness and big play.

    In 2007, after pushing Roger Federer to the brink of defeat at Wimbledon, others had predicted 2010 would happen for Nadal. Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker and Federer all realized it was just a matter of time for Nadal to dominate the sport.

    Nadal's 2010 run was slightly more dominant than Federer's 2007 campaign. At the least, Nadal's 2010 season would have won that 2007 Wimbledon against Federer, polished off the French Open and possibly split one of the others. Federer's biggest advantage would be the U.S. Open.

    It's doubtful Nadal will be return to this dominance again now that Novak Djokovic has stormed onto the scene.

5. John McEnroe's Finest and Last Great Year: 1984

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    Thankfully, George Orwell's dire version of 1984 never materialized. Rather, the sports world was treated to four unique athletes at the peaks of their careers. Joe Montana became the ultimate quarterback, Larry Bird won the first of three MVPs, Wayne Gretzky was already dubbed "the Great One" and John McEnroe imposed his feisty talent on the tennis world.

    McEnroe was the last great holdout from the late 1970s pros who once played with wooden rackets and looked to serve and volley whenever possible. In 1984, he finished 82-3 and dominated Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Were it not for his infamous collapse versus Ivan Lendl in the French Open, McEnroe would have taken all three Grand Slam events in which he participated.

    In the early 1980s, all Grand Slams went through McEnroe. Bjorn Borg even said that beating McEnroe in 1980 was the happiest moment of his life.

    McEnroe would eventually become a victim of technology when rackets were developed that could overpower his thinking game.

4. Roger Federer Ends Tennis Doldrums in 2004

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    When January 2004 arrived, Roger Federer and No. 1 ranked Andy Roddick had each won their first Grand Slam title. Suppose you were told that they would go on to combine for another 15 titles. How would you have divided them?

    Those who paid attention to tennis knew it was a matter of time before Federer took control of tennis, since his watershed win that broke Pete Sampras' four-year Wimbledon streak. In America, there was the hope that Andy Roddick would seize the baton of American men's tennis. Fate does not always compromise.

    The dawn of the Federer era was the end of the Lleyton Hewitt years. At the U.S. Open final, Federer gave Hewitt the famed double-bagel, to bookend the middle 7-6 set. World Tennis Magazine called Hewitt's loss "the greatest humiliation in the history of Grand Slam finals."

    It was like Tiger Woods in 2000, lapping the field and setting new standards in his sport. Federer became a celebrity on ESPN, Live with Regis and Kelly and other media shows.

    Suddenly, tennis was fun to watch again.

3. Novak Djokovic Quickly Dismissed Contemporary Legends in 2011

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    Tennis fans must give Novak Djokovic his just respect. The Serbian sensation suddenly harnessed his emotions and talent into his lanky, ball-hitting frame and out-slugged the competition. It's no easy feat to dethrone Tennis's greatest fighter, Rafael Nadal, right after he had completed the year of his life.

    And though Roger Federer's semifinal victory in the French Open ruined the Djoker's bid for a calendar Grand Slam, it would be the only real blip in an otherwise perfect season.

    Consider that Djokovic's competition is much greater than Federer's 2004 tennis world. It's one of the chief reasons he gets the nod for this spot.

    Pete Sampras, who has called Federer the greatest player, said Djokovic's season was the best he had ever seen in his lifetime.

    Rafael Nadal said Djokovic's tennis was "probably the highest level of tennis that I ever saw."

    Best of all for Djokovic, his latest Australian Open win sets him only one French Open title away from holding all four titles. The sky is the limit for this talented star who may continue to get even better.

    Watch out.

2. Jimmy Connors Was Almost Unbeatable in 1974

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    It's astonishing to look at the 93-4 record and victories in all three Grand Slams he entered. If Jimmy Connors would have played the French Open, this season would have likely overshadowed Rod Laver's seasons. With all apologies to the 2004 Australian media that criticized Lleyton Hewitt, there should have been a closer examination of Australia's own Ken Rosewall.

    Connors hammered Rosewall 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 at Wimbledon and followed this up with a 6-1, 6-0, 6-1 thrashing at the U.S. Open.

    John McEnroe, in a 2010 article by Scoop Malinowski said Connors' aggressiveness came because he was always looking to pick up the ball early and attack. McEnroe praised Connors for knowing how to dig deeper and deeper during big moments.

    The reason why this season is listed above Laver is Connors' complete destruction of his opponents. Both were undefeated in Grand Slams, but Connors did it more convincingly and with only one quarter of Laver's total losses.

1. Roger Federer Had the Greatest Season in Tennis History: 2006

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    What else can we say?

    We were there.

    We saw him essentially end American men's tennis by whipping the likes of Andy Roddick and James Blake.

    Yes, Rafael Nadal denied him perfection at a hard-fought French Open final, but everything else was a foregone conclusion.

    Roger Federer was not only tennis's greatest player, but perhaps the decade's most dominating player in any sport.

    There is nothing left to add.

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