Road to greatness

Novak Djokovic's 2011 thought, situates itself more favourably on the ‘ken of domination against time spent in the top tier' graph, coming as it does, less than three years after he broke Roger Federer's virtual monopoly at the slams with his win at the 2008 Australian Open. Over to Raakesh Natraj.

Novak Djokovic's 2011 (thus far) throws up some truly incredible numbers: three Grand Slam titles, five ATP World Tour events, USD10.6 million in prize money, all on the back of a 64-2 run this season.

Like the numbers on an accountant's ledger, the figures, though mighty by themselves, make for a more complete read when balanced against those on earlier pages. The three-Grand Slams (or more, as in the case of Rod Laver) in a year feat has been achieved by five players previously in the open era — Rod Laver (1969), Jimmy Connors (1974), Mats Wilander (1988), Roger Federer (2004, 2006 and 2007) and Rafael Nadal (2010). Allowing for an omission (Laver's 1969 happened just a year into the professional era) and an addition (John McEnroe's 1984 which he ended with two Grand Slams and a win-loss record of 82-3), the list now reads — Connors, McEnroe, Wilander, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

In each of these cases the years concerned marked a stark point of inflection in the career graphs of the players. For Connors, like Federer after him, the peak-year set him up for a remarkable run. He finished the next four years as the number one player, making it to the finals of eight of the nine slams he participated in, over that period. Federer's 2004 similarly heralded a half-decade of influence, reaching 13 of 16 Grand Slam finals over the next four years, ending each of them atop the ranking list.

While for Federer and Connors, the ‘hot' year happened a season after they had won their first slams and propelled them towards greatness, the annus mirabilis turned out to be something of a swan song for McEnroe and Wilander. Neither went on to win a Grand Slam beyond their date-with-destiny years, and in fact proceeded to drop out of the top-ten fairly soon after. Unlike Connors or Federer, McEnroe was already six years into the circuit by 1984 and was in the top-ten for pretty much the same duration while in 1988, Wilander was already a wizened pro, it being six years after he had won his first slam.

This set of contrasting fortunes serve to neatly bookend the possibilities that such a truly extraordinary year might hold for a player, and one can better understand the significance of Djokovic's 2011 and Nadal's 2010 (for after all, their peaks have come so close to each other that it is impossible to discuss the fortunes of one without bringing up the other) by plotting them on this bounded graph of prospects.

Nadal's run in 2010 came five years after his maiden slam (French Open 2005), and even allowing for his phenomenal levels of fitness and endurance, it would appear that the kind of supremacy that Federer and Connors established over an extended period of time after their break-out years, is going to be beyond him. Nadal is still just 25, but like Wilander (who by 20, had accumulated four Grand Slams), was an early starter. He has already put in season after gruelling season on the circuit, and perhaps more significantly, will have Djokovic eating into his share of the spoils that his 2010 could possibly have opened up.

Djokovic's 2011 thought, situates itself more favourably on the ‘ken of domination against time spent in the top tier' graph, coming as it does, less than three years after he broke Federer's virtual monopoly at the slams with his win at the 2008 Australian Open. This would locate him closer to the Federer-Connors end of the spectrum with its promise of amplified influence.

McEnroe, in his autobiography ‘Serious' says he felt ‘26 and old' in 1985, when at the crest, before the dropping off of his post-84 singles career. Absolute age may seem secondary in significance to time spent in the circuit for the purpose of the earlier conjecture, but it certainly seems to set the upper limit. Roger Federer was 26 when he ended 2007 with three Grand Slams and is the oldest of the six to have done so. Having the ‘hot' year fairly early in one's career seems to allow for a certain riding of the wave, when you are very good, and by natural progression, only getting better. Incremental changes are easier to make, staying fresh is not so much of a concern and it is now up to the trailing pack to level-up.

On the other hand, the cumulative effect of mental and physical fatigue (which is far greater now than earlier — the current US Open witnessed an unprecedented 17 retirements and withdrawals) that comes from playing non-stop for maybe five seasons and beyond, makes it increasingly difficult to maintain the level of play, even if or especially if the player has had a year like McEnroe in 1984 or Wilander in 1988. Winning big after years on the circuit could also come to mean an end in itself, a fat, one-time pay-off — a line of thought perhaps more suited to the pre-Sampras, Federer era.

If you have to keep running to stay where you are (and you have a lot of running to do if you are to keep up with a year like the one Djokovic is having), the problem of escalation is pretty much going to knock you off your feet. Was it not Federer's monster years between 2004 and 2007 that spawned, as an inevitable counter, the whiplash of a forehand wielding Nadal who ultimately got the champion's run to an end? And was it not Nadal's relentless spin-dripping hit wide in the ad-court that ultimately nudged Djokovic to a more aggressive stance where he sticks to the base-line, not allowing for the Nadal forehand to climb too high while sending it back, down-the-line via an improved and currently unstoppable backhand?

While the mid-to-late career drop-off in performance was dramatic in the case of McEnroe and Wilander, Nadal, currently Djokovic's premier rival, can be counted upon to remain (One can't realistically see suspensions, sabbaticals, fitness issues, casual drug use become a concern for Nadal, like they may have been for McEnroe and Wilander.), and respond.

So, for the first time in his career, Djokovic, 24, will set the pace.

The short-term goal of overhauling McEnroe's year-end 84-2 record may or may not come to pass, but the window of opportunity will remain open for perhaps a couple more years, when he can push on and put together a truly formidable run.

As the time-line points out, keeping oneself fresh (which is already beginning to concern Djokovic: one of his two losses for the year came when he conceded the final of the Cincinatti Masters to Andy Murray due to a shoulder injury. And the final set of the final of the US Open saw him take medical time outs to treat a troubled back), a continued commitment to improve (Djokovic ended four straight years ranked No. 3 and did not reach a Grand Slam final in ten attempts between 2008 and 2010 before the current charge), and having pulled ahead, staying ahead of the curve (surely, Nadal is already plotting his revenge; Murray and Del Potro will also perhaps mount more of a sustained challenge in the future) will be of essence.

The packed tennis calendar and peak-performances arriving more frequently (three-Grand Slam years were really once in a decade occurrence until now, when it has happened five times in the last eight years) than ever before suggest it will not be easy. The road to greatness seldom is.