Novak Djokovic's unmatched season
Roger, Rafa, Rafa, Rafa, Roger.
For six years, that's all we heard about in men's tennis because that was all that mattered in men's tennis.
It was fascinating.
It was enthralling.
It was the best ever ... until Novak Djokovic one-upped them both.
Now, before you blow a gasket, I am in no way suggesting Djokovic's 2011 season catapults him into the Federer and Nadal conversation in terms of place in history. Hell, he's barely been in the conversation in terms of place in the present, considering he came into the year with a losing record against top-10 players.
But if Djokovic manages to win the French Open, he will leave Paris with his third Slam and the No. 1 ranking, and the all-time record for consecutive wins. More importantly, more impressively, assuming he faces Nadal for the title, he would have three consecutive clay-court victories over the greatest clay-court player to ever pick up a racket. That, by far, would be the most astounding fact of this run. He could go the rest of the year without a major title, but as far as I'm concerned, this six-month stretch is already enough to put Djokovic's 2011 season in the conversation as the greatest season we've ever seen.
Hyperbolic fanboy talk?
I don't think so.
He's already tied Roger and Rafa for the most Masters Series titles won in a season with four, and it's not even June.
And then there's whom he is beating to win these titles.
When the Chicago Bulls won 72 games in 1998 and the New England Patriots went 16-0 in 2007, the combined winning percentage of their opponents was comfortably less than .500 in both cases, and yet, no one questions those teams' places in history. Djokovic is not only 13-0 against players ranked in the top 10, but he is flat out dominating the two men who have won 21 of the past 25 Slams. While he can't control whom he plays, Djokovic can hardly be accused of fattening up his record by whipping weaker opponents; Rafa, Roger and two-time French Open finalist Robin Soderling are a combined 93-20 this year, but 0-8 against Djokovic. True, No. 3-ranked Federer is clearly sliding from his peak, but Soderling and Rafa are in their primes, and combined have five titles this year. Hell, Rafa had never lost more than one clay-court match in a season before Djokovic took him out twice.
Both times in straight sets.
That's in Spain.
Rafa's home country!!
That would be like torching Michael Jordan in his prime at the United Center ... with a high-flying, high-scoring isolation game (or blowing by him for a jam on an outdoor court in Wilmington, N.C.).
Face it, as confidently as Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James are playing right now and as amazing as Aaron Rodgers was en route to the Super Bowl, no male athlete in any sport is having a more dominant 2011 than Djokovic. We in the States won't give him the credit he deserves, because, well, it's tennis and he's not American. But historians certainly will look back at this stretch and say, "Daaaaaamn, that dude was ballin'."
He still has a long way to go before we should start comparing his streak to some of sports' greatest streaks, such as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak or Wilt Chamberlain's 126 consecutive games with at least 20 points. Tennis alone has some streaks that I think are more impressive right now, such as Rafa's 81-match clay win streak or Federer's 23 consecutive Grand Slam semifinal appearances.
Still, those were earned over years. I'm just looking at accomplishments in a single season, and given whom he has beaten, where and how, it's hard not to be in awe.
By beating Juan Martin del Potro, Djokovic ties John McEnroe for the third-longest winning streak at 42-0 (he's 40-0 for the season) but get this, McEnroe has already said Djokovic's streak is more impressive because "there's more competition, more athleticism and deeper fields now.
"Especially given that in 1984, the major in Australia was played at the end of the year."
Only two other players (del Potro, 2009 U.S. Open; Marat Safin, 2005 Aussie) have managed to win a Slam in the Roger-Rafa era. McEnroe's streak was snapped after he coughed up a two-set lead against a then Slam-less Ivan Lendl at the French.
No knock on Mac -- it turns out Lendl was pretty good -- but his streak came without a Slam trophy. So did Lendl's 44-match win streak between two seasons (1981-82). And Bjorn Borg did win Slams during his streak of 43 wins, but he twice pulled out of tournaments between matches.
So far, Djokovic's health has not been an issue when he's on the court. Especially his mental health, which his opponents are crediting for the Serb's successful season. They say he is more confident, and even he admits his belief in his ability is the highest it has ever been.
I was sitting in the stands during last year's U.S. Open semifinals when Djokovic faced match point on his serve. I could hear people in the crowd asking each other whether they thought Federer could beat Nadal in the final even before the ball toss.
Then Djokovic started painting the lines with these lasers that stunned not only Federer, but also much of Arthur Ashe Stadium. They stood and applauded afterward, but there was a feeling that Federer blew his chances with sloppy play. In retrospect, it was the rebirth of Djokovic. At the postmatch interview, he said he started swinging more freely because his back was against the wall and he had nothing left to lose.
This year he's letting it fly because tennis immortality is all he has left to gain.
These days it seems he's won everything else.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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