Novak Djokovic’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Madrid Masters is understandable. He plans to be rested and energized for another assault at the the French Open, and there’s no doubt he will throw his entire being into the attempt. It’s a sensible approach in pursuit of his career’s holy grail.
The withdrawal may also mean a possible loss of momentum, according to ESPN's Peter Bodo:
Besides these outlooks, there is at least one disappointing aspect about Djokovic’s decision, at least from the standpoint of chasing tennis history. He sacrificed the chance to complete the greatest ever first half of a calendar tennis year. He still might get it, but it will not be a perfect sweep.
Redefining Masters and Grand Slam Success
The No. 1-ranked Djokovic has crushed the ATP tour since October, winning all of the biggest tournaments that are at minimum the prestigious Masters 1000 level. He finished 2014 by winning the final two big events, the Paris Masters and the World Tour Final at London. In 2015, he has thus far won all four of the biggest prizes: the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami and Monte Carlo.
That’s six straight huge trophies through three calendar seasons, two continents and varying surfaces.
Except that now Djokovic will watch from the sidelines as someone else lifts up Madrid’s trophy. His streak of winning four consecutive Masters 1000 titles is broken.
Nevertheless, Djokovic still has a chance to achieve a new standard of historical greatness. Here’s how we can measure his results and upcoming opportunities in 2015:
We can break a calendar year into two equal halves of seven huge trophies apiece. The first half is the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Monte Carlo, Madrid, Rome and the French Open. Call this the slow-courts half of the year. (The second half of the year features the fast courts led by Wimbledon, Canada Open, Cincinnati, U.S. Open, Shanghai, Paris and the WTF.)
A couple of caveats. The 21st century has seen the ATP emphasize the Masters 1000 tournaments with mandatory participation and bigger incentives. The current "Big Three" of tennis (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic) have established new standards of winning these titles, so the basis of this article is to compare these three against each other. Past legends ranging from Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras had different opportunities to dominate, but not to the extent that the numbers stack up now.
Nadal for Four and Federer for Three
To put Djokovic’s current domination into recent, historical perspective, there are some interesting comparisons with Nadal and Federer.
Four times (2007, '09-10, '13) Nadal, the King of Clay, won four of the seven big trophies in the first half of the year. Each time he won one of the two majors and three Masters 1000 tournaments:
2007: Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Rome, French Open
2009: Australian Open, Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Rome
2010: Monte Carlo, Rome, Madrid, French Open
2013: Indian Wells, Madrid, Rome, French Open
It’s fair to note that only one time (2010) was this accomplished exclusively on clay. Furthermore, Nadal had four other years (2005-06, '08, '12) of winning three or more Masters 1000/majors in the first half of the year.
Federer has had less of an impact in the first half of each year. Only two times (2004, '06) did the Swiss superstar win three or more of the big trophies by the closing ceremonies of Roland Garros. It was a supreme challenge for him to nab clay-court titles during Nadal’s younger and prime years, and Federer’s much stronger bodies of work occurred during the second-half stretches of the calendar year.
Djokovic for Five or Six
Djokovic had already created a new standard for the slow-courts combinations in 2011, a season that is somehow still underrated. Djokovic won five of the seven huge trophies: Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome.
Perhaps this has often been overlooked because he did not win the French Open. Falling in the semifinals to Federer is often the memory fans take away from the end of the slow-courts half of the year. His subsequent conquests at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open gave him three majors for 2011, which also justifiably overshadows his epic first half.
Many tennis fans might not realize that winning those first five trophies before 2011 Wimbledon was still mathematically a greater accomplishment than any first half from Nadal or Federer.
As it stands in 2015, Djokovic already has four of those trophies in the bag. Had he opted to compete at Madrid, Rome and the French Open, he might have obliterated the best first-half efforts of Nadal and Federer.
Perfection is gone, but suppose a well-rested Djokovic torches Rome and sacks Roland Garros. That’s still an astounding six massive trophies of seven possibilities, and in barely four months' time. By contrast, Scot superstar Andy Murray has only won three big trophies since his former coach Ivan Lendl signed up to begin 2012, and Lendl has been gone more than a year now.
Most importantly, if Djokovic wins the French Open, he will be the first player to win the first two majors since Jim Courier in 1992. Throw in those four 2015 Masters titles he has already won and perhaps a fifth Masters title with Rome, and it would be the new standard of greatness for any modern player heading into Wimbledon.
Djokovic made his decision to prioritize all of his efforts and energy to win the French Open. That’s his call, and perhaps the right one. Yet, it would have been interesting to have seen him compete at Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros.
It was an opportunity that will likely not happen again for the Serbian, and perhaps any player for many years to come.