A Substitute for War

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Novak Djokovic and the best men’s tennis seasons of all time

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Novak Đoković at 2007 US Open

Image via Wikipedia

Wow. Okay, now that Novak Djokovic has defeated Rafael Nadal for the Wimbledon title it’s no hyperbole to say that a shockwave has torn through the men’s tennis landscape this season and we need to take some time to reflect.

The fact that the stranglehold that Nadal and Roger Federer have had on the game for past 7 years is big news in and of itself. We truly are blessed with a golden generation of talent in men’s tennis. Utterly stunning that someone as good as Andy Murray may never end up winning a major.

And yet, the bigger story here is not that Djokovic has emerged as the best player in the game, but how historic his season has been. Djokovic is now 48-1 for the year. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how impressive this is. Below is a table of the best seasons in men’s tennis by match record going back to 1973:

 

Now, what I’ve done here is show the 19 seasons where someone won more than 90% of their matches, as well as the peak seasons for players who never hit that threshold but did hit 85%.

You’ll notice that Djokovic is at the very top of the list. Before this year, his best record came in 2009 with a 78-19 record, which would put him at 80.4%. Nowhere near good enough to get on this list.

You’ll also notice that, that Nadal has yet to ever break the 90% threshold.

Djokovic hasn’t simply surpassed the field, he’s blown them out of the water. For him to do this after having stayed for 4 straight years at roughly the same level (an impressive level to be sure – but a couple leagues below this one) is honestly bizarre. No one saw this coming.

It’s thrilling as a sports fan to be able to see something so bold come about not from out of the fringes at the corner of our eyes, but from right in front of us.

While we’ve got this table up in front of us, let me point out a few other relevant points:

1. I like looking at match records like this because I think it really hammers in how dominant a player was. While it is somewhat true that the best players save their focus for the Grand Slam, the discrepancy between the two isn’t as big as you’d think. Nadal for example, doesn’t have anywhere near the consistent track record of success in the majors that Federer does.

2. John McEnroe‘s 82-3  in 1984 is often held up as the greatest season in history. Those who’ve come to tennis history through a lens of Grand Slam tournaments may have wondered what the big deal was about McEnroe. Clearly by such metrics he’s one of the greats, but not really in the running for THE greatest. McEnroe’s issue though was of maintaining rather than achieving a peak. At his best, he payed a beautiful, instinctive brand of tennis that was incredibly tough to beat.

For the record, McEnroe won 2 of the 4 majors in 1984. However, back then the Australian Open didn’t have the stature it does today: He skipped it, and the actual 4th biggest tournament of the year (the Masters) he won. Additionally, he lost in the finals of the French Open to Ivan Lendl. If there was ever a case though of a player being the best player and just not quite pulling it off this was it. McEnroe played Lendl 7 times that year, and beat him 6. They played 3 times on clay, McEnroe won the other two. At the French, McEnroe won the first two sets easily, and then his game just went south complete with a classic tirade and signs of physical exhaustion.

3. Jimmy Connors‘ 93-4 in 1974 is an interesting case. This was at the very beginning of the ATP tour, and there were a variety of political issues going on. As a result Connors didn’t play the French Open, but won all 3 other majors, leaving many to ask “What if?”. However, you’ll notice that 3 players from 1974 made the table above, and Connors somehow managed to not play John Newcombe or Rod Laver that year, and in the finals of 2 of his 3 slams he played a 39-year-old Ken Rosewall. Great year, but I have a hard time looking at it as quite as impressive as it superficially looks.

4. We next see Federer’s big 3 years. I’ll specifically point your attention to his 2006 year. More impressive than the fact that he lost only 5 matches, is that he only lost 2 players in the entire season (Nadal and Andy Murray), and most of those losses were to Nadal on clay. While McEnroe truly stands alone as someone who was the best player on all surfaces at his best, I doubt he’d have faired much better against Nadal on clay than Federer (even giving him time to adjust technology, etc). To me, Federer’s 2006 season is the most impressive season of the Open era.

5. Last, Pete Sampras is nowhere near the top of this list. Perhaps no one had a greater reputation for turning it on at the majors at Sampras, so is that the reason for this? I’d say that’s too much of an excuse. Sampras simply wasn’t the all court player that the players high on the list were, and that’s exposed when we start looking at the details.

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Written by Matt Johnson

July 4, 2011 at 5:23 pm

7 Responses

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  1. Looking at things, it really might just come down to him finding out he was allergic to gluten and getting rid of it. It seems so out of nowhere that he’d just jump up a level after being clearly inferior for years. Maybe he always had the game but not the physical ability of Nadal and Federer

    I still want to see him keep this up but right now he’s is unquestionably the best. Side note, hopefully this means more Nadal Federer grand slam matches

    julienrodger

    July 6, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    • Yeah, the gluten is interesting. Not really sure what to make of it. If Djoker keeps it up, this could become one of the great “What ifs?”

      Matt Johnson

      July 9, 2011 at 2:42 pm

  2. On top of his 5 seasons winning over 90% of his matches, Lendl also won 5 year-end tournaments, a record he shares with only Sampras and Federer. Ffor such a consistently great player, he is very unappreciated… That’s what happens when you lose 11 of your 19 slam finals.

    Mike

    July 6, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    • Agreed. I’ve been guilty of it too, tending to look at Lendl as a workman-like player who achieved through consistency in an era without more dominant players. However, when you look at these records, it becomes hard to justify being so dismissive. I’ll be thinking more on Lendl.

      Matt Johnson

      July 9, 2011 at 2:44 pm

  3. Steroids, Julien, I’m sure of it. 😉

    More seriously, I’m glad to see the Djoker move up to be a genuine number one (contrast: Woz) with great performances in the clutch against quality opponents which elevate his credibility. It would be great to see those W/L be standardised in some way to take into account rankings (although from memory they’ve changed the system a couple of times, which makes it hard to use as anything other than a rough indicator) .

    Ravenred

    July 7, 2011 at 4:32 am

    • Yup. Man, such a great time for men’s tennis, such a weak time for women’s. I still don’t think there’s any meaning behind it accept luck, but the contrast is incredibly stark.

      I don’t have that much respect for the actual ranking systems from an actual “who is the best” perspective. I don’t think that’s really there purpose so much as to encourage players to take more minor tournaments seriously.

      I do think it would be fun to come up with a complex weighting system that values some matches & tourneys more than others, but it won’t be easy to do it to my satisfaction.

      Matt Johnson

      July 9, 2011 at 2:48 pm

  4. […] najuspešnijih teniskih sezona u istoriji (izvor: http://asubstituteforwar.com/2011/07/04/novak-djokovic-and-the-best-mens-tennis-seasons-of-all-time/) Najuspešnije sezone u istoriji […]

    Nepobediv!

    August 14, 2011 at 4:59 pm


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