A few days ago Roger Federer was asked what invincibility tasted like during that glorious stretch between 2004 and 2007 when the sweet spot on his racket was as fat as a watermelon and his tennis was so exalted the writer David Foster Wallace compared watching him to a religious experience.
“It’s a funny place,” he replied, fumbling for an appropriate analogy, “Whoosh, like on a bullet train!” Or being caught on a wave “you don’t want to get flushed out” from. But he had regrets too: “There is so much winning and playing going on that sometimes … you don’t take enough time to actually celebrate those moments.”
Aren’t we, as a wider sporting audience, falling into the same trap with Novak Djokovic? During 2011, when he won three grand slam titles and finished with a 70-6 win/loss record, including 10 victories in 11 against a close-to-peak Rafael Nadal and Federer, the Serb was “having the greatest year in the history of our sport”, according to John McEnroe. Yet statistically Djokovic was even better in 2015. Not only did he win 82 of 88 matches – a 93% win percentage, the sixth best in the open era behind McEnroe in 1984, Jimmy Connors in 1974, Federer in 2005 and 2006, and Bjorn Borg in 1979 – he also became only the third man, after Rod Laver and Federer, to reach all four grand slam finals in a calendar year. For good measure he ended 2015 with six Masters titles, a record.
That success was earned the hard way. This year Djokovic beat top-10 players 31 times – another record, eclipsing the next best of 24 (by Djokovic in 2012 and 2013, and Nadal in 2013). If it was not for Stan Wawrinka’s forehand getting molten-hot in the French Open final we could be talking of Djokovic as only the second calendar slam winner in the open era. After Wawrinka had cracked 60 winners in that final he confessed to playing “the match of my life”. That is what it took to beat the world No1.
Yet while Djokovic has produced one of the greatest years in tennis history, deep public affection for him remains elusive. The crowds mostly rooted for his opponents. In the US Open final against Federer they even applauded his service faults. And then another minor snub: missing out on the BBC’s overseas sports personality of the year award to Dan Carter.
Djokovic says not being a fan favourite “has only steeled my resolve”. And how. To these eyes he was not quite as brilliant a shot maker in 2015 as he was four years ago but his body and mind are even more resilient. A couple of years ago he tweeted a photograph of himself standing by a dilapidated wall in Serbia that he used to whack tennis balls against as a four-year-old. This year he was like that wall. Whatever opponents threw at him came back with interest.
Such is Djokovic’s consistency he tops four of the 10 ATP ranking categories – second serve points won, first and second serve return points won, and return games won – and appears in the top 10 in four more. Only in aces (18th) and first serve points won (24th) was he anything less than exceptional – and while he won fewer cheaper points than his rivals on serve, his strength from the back of the court more than made up for it.
And according to Dan Weston, a tennis analyst and professional gambler, Djokovic’s underlying figures this year even sneak ahead of Federer’s finest season in 2006 and Pete Sampras’s best year in 1997. In 2015 Djokovic held his serve 89.8% and broke his opponent 33.7% of the time – a combined success total of 123.5%. In 2006 Federer held serve 90% and broke his opponent’s 32% of the time, a combined total of 122%, while Sampras in 1997 was lower still (90% serve hold, 28% breaks of serve).
What these numbers cannot show, of course, is Djokovic’s incredible litheness and flexibility. He reminds one of those plastic bendy men which, no matter how much a child twists and scrunches it, always pops back into position, ready to go.
True, there has been the odd misstep – including the “fake” cramp against Andy Murray in the Australian Open final and raging at a ball girl for being too slow at Wimbledon. But his reaction to defeat against Wawrinka at Roland Garros spoke volumes: “In life some things are more important than victories: character and respect,” he told the crowd. “I have a great respect for you, Stan – I lost to a better player.”
Unlike many of his great rivals, Djokovic has no obvious weakness on grass, clay or hard court. And as Weston points out, he is exceptional with the roof up too: his defeat to Federer in the group stages at the Tour finals last month was his first indoors since 2012 – a 38-match run.
As he approaches his 29th birthday, Djokovic clearly believes he can ride that wave of invincibility which Federer talked about, promising that he feels “physically stronger and mentally more experienced” as he bids to add to his 10 grand slam titles. But even if he is not able to get closer to the 14 held by Borg and Nadal, and the 17 by Federer, he surely should be more appreciated for being one of the finest champions of this age – in fact, any age.
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