Commentary

Novak Djokovic owns the lethal edge

Updated: June 2, 2011, 10:40 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

PARIS -- Beneath its stylish sheen, tennis can be an unblinking and brutal sport. In each tournament, every singles player with the exception of one leaves a loser.

The champion of a Grand Slam, after outplaying 127 competitors, hoists the trophy and, for one event at least, proves himself unbeatable.

In all of his seven completed tournaments this year, Novak Djokovic has worked his way through the draw -- one match, one man at a time -- and found himself alone at the end. In this, his eighth tournament, he has shown no sign of losing the lethally sharp edge on his game.

And now, after four days off, Djokovic will meet Roger Federer in the Roland Garros semifinals on Friday.

The 24-year-old Serb has won each of his 41 matches this season -- a nearly five-month period of unsurpassed grace that only three other men have ever known. Djokovic has done it on four continents, on the rock-hard purple courts of Miami and the shifting red crushed brick of Roland Garros. He has beaten 10 Spaniards, four Swiss and three fellow Serbians, as well as men from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Latvia. He won in a scant 40 minutes, when Victor Troicki retired at the Australian Open, and he was taken to a memorable third-set tiebreaker in Miami by Rafael Nadal in a match that consumed 202 minutes.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Alexander Klein/Getty ImagesNo surface, no player has slowed Novak Djokovic. It's June and the indomitable Serb remains perfect.

There is an undeniable heft, like sterling silver in your hand, to this run; he has beaten No. 1-ranked Rafael Nadal and the No. 2-ranked Federer, the most decorated players of his generation, a combined seven times. Djokovic, incredibly, won 15 of those 18 sets.

The cumulative numbers are almost beyond comprehension. The Streak has now encompassed:

• 101 sets, of which Djokovic has won 91

• 881 games

• 5,547 points

• 4,375 minutes (72 hours and 55 minutes)

To his credit, when The Streak comes up -- and it does every day, in every interview -- Djokovic does his best to deflect and dismiss.

"To be honest," he said after beating Juan Martin del Potro in the third round, "I'm thinking about this tournament only. I definitely want to go as far as I can in Roland Garros. And then, if the No. 1 rankings come this week, I'll be more than happy, definitely.

"But it's not something I'm thinking about."

But, with all the questions, The Streak has to be in the back of his mind, probably the front. Djokovic has said repeatedly that he is not invincible but, clearly, in this space and place he is.

There are moments in our lives -- fleeting, at best -- when we feel this way: Unstoppable. Indomitable. Invincible. In 1941, the Yankees' Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 consecutive baseball games, a streak that feels vaguely related to this one.

What does it feel like to live in this alien world for weeks, even months on end?

"Fabulous!" said Martina Navratilova, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion and an analyst here for Tennis Channel. "You kind of forget how to lose. They say winning is a habit. Well, so is losing."

Navratilova won 128 of 129 matches from 1983-84. She also has three of the six longest winning streaks in the Open era of tennis: No. 1. 74 (1984), No. 3. 58 (1986-87), No. 6. 54 (1983-84)

"Unforced errors don't even enter your mind," she explained "You're in that kind of bubble. You're not playing those mind games with yourself -- it's all positive."

Ivan Lendl won 44 straight matches in 1981-82. On his way to a tennis exhibition in his native Czech Republic last week, at the airport in Vienna, Austria, Lendl paused to reflect on his period of dominance.

"Ah, I don't know," he said. "I wasn't aware that I was winning all the time. Or how many I had won in a row. Nobody made a big deal about that back then. I didn't read the newspapers. I never paid attention.

"I was just in my own world and kept playing."

Is that how Djokovic has managed to thrive?

"The guy is playing phenomenal tennis," Lendl said. "He had skeptics. I was once of them."

It's almost like a pitcher going for a no-hitter. I don't want to be the guy that says, `Hey, by the way, you're 38-0. Don't lose.' I don't want to be that guy."

--Mardy Fish, one-time victim

The Man in black

He stepped onto the court at Rod Laver Arena for the second night match on Jan. 17 wearing all black.

Djokovic, the No. 3-ranked player in the world, had finished 2010 with a flourish, winning his two matches in Serbia's Davis Cup victory over France. After only six days off, he began preparing for the coming season. In the first round at the Australian Open, Djokovic did not toy with Marcel Granollers. He won the first set 6-1, then sent a subtle, angled backhand past the onrushing Spaniard to break his serve and take a decisive 4-3 lead in the second. He finished his first match of 2011 emphatically, with an ace down the middle.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Paul Crock/AFP/Getty ImagesThe face of scrutiny for a good part of three years, Novak Djokovic vindicated himself by winning the Australian Open for the second time.

"I'm just happy with the way I played," Djokovic said. "Now I look forward to the upcoming challenges."

He dropped one set the entire fortnight, to Ivan Dodig of Croatia in the second round. No. 6-ranked Tomas Berdych, No. 2 Roger Federer and No. 5 Andy Murray? They all went down, swiftly, in straight sets, and Djokovic, 7-0 Down Under, emerged with his second major title.

"Novak played unbelievably well," said Murray, who first met Djokovic when they were 13-year-old juniors.

Three weeks later in Dubai, Djokovic ran the table again. His second round match against Feliciano Lopez, in terms of pure statistics, was the closest Djokovic has come to losing. He edged Lopez in games (14-13) and points (75-72). Djokovic handled Berdych, too, and reached the final where he again beat Federer, 6-3, 6-3. Djokovic was now 12-0.

There may be no more pleasant place in the world than Indian Wells, Calif., in March. The air is warm and dry and the tennis in these optimum conditions is usually aesthetically pleasing. With most of the world's best players on hand, it's a Grand Slam without the riff-raff, a draw of 96 that requires six best-of-three matches of its champion.

Djokovic, dialed in, began each of his first three matches with a 6-0 set and eased into the semifinals for a third meeting with Federer. The 16-time major champion managed to take the second set, but Djokovic prevailed -- and guaranteed himself Federer's No. 2 ranking. The 2-hour, 25-minute final against Nadal was universally described as "epic." The Spaniard won the first set, but Djokovic, feasting on his second serves, throttled him in the last two.

"I lost today," Nadal reflected, "but I lost to one of the greatest."

The streak -- for it was now being recognized as such -- was at 18-0.

I also had some winning streaks in my career, and they always end, and that's tough. When people start talking about it, it becomes more difficult for you to handle the situation. It happened to me, too.

--Roger Federer, three-time victim

Survive and advance There was a time when Djokovic's fitness -- and sometimes his manhood, too -- was questioned.

Under duress, he would experience trouble breathing and his retirements from Grand Slam matches became something of a joke; there were numerous, cruel plays on his last name.

This year, no one -- not even the great Nadal -- has looked fitter. Djokovic lost a few pounds from his 6-foot-2, 176-pound frame, something he attributes to a new diet. It was discovered that Djokovic is allergic to gluten, a protein found in flour. Now the kid who grew up in a pizza restaurant has to go without. As his matches progress, Djokovic seems to get stronger. This season, no one in the game is moving better from side to side.

This was true of the Miami final. It came down to Djokovic and Nadal, perhaps the toughest player we have seen for some time, in a third-set tiebreaker. Djokovic emerged with a 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4) victory.

[+] EnlargeNovak Djokovic
Andre Chaco/ FotoArena/LatinContent/Getty ImagesNovak Djokovic vanquished Rafael Nadal twice during the North American hard-court season, yet there were still skeptics.

"It was one of the best finals I ever played in my life," Djokovic said. "For these matches, you really play the sport.

"You have to believe on the court. In the end, it's mental. In these moments, against a great champion like Rafa, you have to believe. I always believed, but it's a process of learning."

Djokovic, now a dizzying 24-0, headed home to Monte Carlo, where he contemplated three weeks of quasi downtime. He would pass on the higher-profile clay events in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, work on his fitness in the gym then return to the Belgrade tournament, run by his uncle Goran.

Romania's Adrian Ungur, at No. 175 the lowest-ranked player to contribute to The Streak, went quietly in Djokovic's first match. Blaz Kavic, an obscure Slovakian from a family of professional skiers, was next. Janko Tipsarevic, a Davis Cup teammate, managed to keep his name off the growing list of victims. An injury to his right leg prevented him from playing, and Djokovic received a walkover -- but it didn't count as a victory.

Feliciano Lopez, who had taken a set off Djokovic in Dubai, awaited in the final. Lefties have always bothered him and, sure enough, the Spaniard took him to a tiebreaker in the first set. Djokovic survived and breezed in the second.

He was now 27-0.

I don't know when he's going to stop. To beat him, you have to play incredible tennis, because he's got no weak point.

--Richard Gasquet, two-time victim

Changing perceptions

Djokovic caught Lendl's discerning eye at last year's U.S. Open, when he hung with Nadal for four sets in the final.

"I'm surprised people have not made more of this," Lendl said. "He played well against Federer in the semifinals [saving two match points] and took a set from Rafa. He had clearly been working on his game and now, with the conditioning and the diet, he has improved himself physically and mentally."

Still, Lendl wasn't convinced.

Winning in the copasetic conditions at Indian Wells was one thing, but what about Miami, where the wind can mess with the minds of anal-retentive players like Djokovic? Lendl started to believe after that victory, but Djokovic's two wins over Rafa in America came with an asterisk. What would happen when they met on the comforting clay of Madrid or Rome?

Same old, same old.

But even when Djokovic took down Nadal for the third straight time, 7-5, 6-4 in an oddly anticlimactic final, there were more questions. The ball was flying at Madrid, where altitude speeds up play, an advantage for Djokovic. Rome would be sticky and slow, just like the surface at Roland Garros, where Nadal had only lost once in his life.

The match of the tournament did not come in the finals, but in the semis against Andy Murray. If not for a sore elbow, the dour Scotsman might have beaten Djokovic. As it was, he fell in a third-set tiebreaker. And then Nadal lost his fourth straight final to the forceful Serb, 6-4, 6-4. Djokovic, now 37-0, was forcing people to rethink their position on the favorite for the French Open.

"He absolutely took him apart in Rome," Lendl said. "I don't want to call myself a doubter, but he is picking the cherries off the tree. The way he played in Rome, Rafa had no answers for the things that Djokovic threw at him."

I'm not have many words to explain his game. He has everything, everything perfect."

-- Juan Martin del Potro, one-time victim

Consistently amazing

American "Big Bill" Tilden won 98 straight matches in the middle of the Roaring Twenties.

Suzanne Lenglen, the Frenchwoman whose name adorns the second show court here at Roland Garros, won 116 consecutive matches before retiring to Molla Malloy at the 1921 U.S. Open. Coughing and crying, she could not go on after losing the first set.

And then, from 1921-26, Lenglen won another 182 straight.

But in modern tennis, populated by more global players with more skill, it is harder to generate such lopsided numbers.

John McEnroe started the 1984 season by winning 42 straight matches but for several reasons, he said, Djokovic's streak -- though shorter -- is a greater accomplishment.

"Given that there's more competition, more athleticism and deeper fields now, I'd say his record is even more impressive than mine," said McEnroe, an analyst here for NBC and Tennis Channel. "He came into the year at No. 3 and to be able to dominate [Nadal and Federer] the way he has, well, to put it mildly, it's been quite amazing to see."

McEnroe made another qualifying distinction, too. When he was playing, the Australian Open came at the end of the year, not the beginning. So when he amassed those victories, he hadn't played a major. The end of his streak came in the first Grand Slam event of the season, the finals of the French Open. Lendl, trailing by two sets, came back to win the title. McEnroe finished the year 82-3 (.965).

[+] EnlargeJohn McEnroe
Steve Powell/Getty ImagesOminous sign for Novak Djokovic? John McEnroe's 42-match win streak to start 1984 ended at the French Open.

"I don't remember John playing that much because, nothing against his age, but it's just that I was still quite young when he stopped playing," said Djokovic, who was still about two years from conception when the streak occurred. "But extreme, extreme respect to John McEnroe and what he has done in his tennis career. I saw him now just 20 minutes ago, first time in Paris this year. We had a little chat."

Navratilova's 78-match winning streak is the standard of the Open era. She, too, has been impressed with Djokovic.

"He's playing so well right now," she said. "He's going to have to have a bad day and the other guy is going to have a career day. He's been able to do it day in and day out. That's where the confidence comes in handy."

Lendl, who said he does not spend a lot of time with today's game, said he will be watching as the French Open winds down.

"It's amazing what he's doing, there's no doubt about it," said the eight-time Grand Slam singles champion. "It's not about streaks, it's about winning majors. You have to say to Djokovic, `It's a great achievement, but the streak means nothing if he loses in the final."

The longer the streak grows, the more Djokovic tends to downplay it.

"I don't feel invincible," he said before the tournament. "Nobody is unbeatable, even though I had an incredible run that keeps on going. I'm really not trying to think about the run that I have, not trying to think about when this run will end, because that will mean I'm thinking about losing."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.