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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

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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:

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Written by Matt Johnson

July 4, 2011 at 5:23 pm

On Nadal-Djokovic vs the Great Rivalries

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merged from four Wikipedia Commons images orig...

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I’m a big fan of Peter Bodo‘s tennis analysis, but today he wrote something that makes me get up on my soapbox. On the plus side, he also forces  to try to make a definitive statement about what makes a rivalry great. Here’s the upshot of what he said:

Not that Federer-Rafael Nadal hasn’t been terrific — it only produced, among other things, that Wimbledon final of 2008, nominated by many as the greatest tennis match of all time. But the feeling grows that the real, defining rivalry of this generation will be the one between Nadal and Novak Djokovic.

He goes on to liken the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry to McEnroe-Lendl. This is interesting because it’s a pretty good analogy, and yet when I consider John McEnroe‘s great rivals, I think about Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors before I think of Ivan Lendl. The fact that he’s got the analogy right means that my real beef with Bodo is based on us valuing rivalries differently.

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8 Thoughts from Indian Wells

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I’m lucky enough to be living in Southern California, and among the many perks of this, is that we have one of the biggest tennis tournaments in the world in our backyard. So my dad and I made the road trip out to desert to be able to see the men’s and women’s finals of the Indian Wells on Sunday. Some reflections:

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7 Thoughts from the Australian Open

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1. Rafael Nadal‘s injury was a shame. You hate to see a guy going for an amazing accomplishment like the Grand Slam stopped by injury. On the other hand, no asterisks should be placed on the tournament on the idea that Nadal wins if not for the injury. The truth of the matter is that Nadal has never reached a point where he has impressive odds of winning a particular hard court tournament.

2. It was great to see Djokovic step up. He looks like he’s finally ready to take that next jump, which I was beginning to think he didn’t have in him. It’s going to be interesting, presuming he keeps this up, to see him square off over the next year against Nadal. I don’t expect that anything but injury will keep Nadal from repeating as Player of the Year, but I also think the Djoker has a very good chance at keeping Rafa from ending the year on another 3 Slam streak.

3. Andy Murray‘s destruction in the finals at the racket of Djokovic is definitely discouraging for the guy. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Matt Johnson

February 3, 2011 at 11:52 am

Clijsters the Hustler

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Kim Clijsters is your 2011 Australian Open champion, and she won the final over Li Na in a manner that epitomizes her career. For me it brings to mind an exchange from the 1961 classic, The Hustler:

Bert Gordon: I don’t think there’s a pool player alive shoots better pool than I saw you shoot the other night at Ames. You got talent.
Fast Eddie: So I got talent. So what beat me?
Bert Gordon: Character.

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Written by Matt Johnson

January 29, 2011 at 12:45 pm

Rod Laver and the Overrating of the Pre-Open Era Grand Slam

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Sculpture depicting Rod Laver outside the Rod ...

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Well here I go taking a hatchet to Rod Laver for the second post in a row.  The first post was in direct response to Laver’s recent interview, but this is just a general point that needs to be made and now seems like as good a time as any to make it.

Almost any argument for Laver as a candidate for GOAT (greatest of all-time) mentions that he won not just one but TWO Grand Slams.  Some will go the extra mile and point out that Laver won the Grand Slam in his last year as an amateur in 1962, and then again in the first full year of the Open Era in 1969 as a professional, and thus imply that might have achieved the Grand Slam half a dozen times had the politics of the situation not gotten in the way.

Let’s clear some things up:

The Best Players Played Professionally even before the Open Era

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Written by Matt Johnson

January 16, 2011 at 2:20 pm

What Constitutes a Grand Slam?

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Rafael Nadal Melbourne 2009

Image by Brett Marlow Melbourne Australia via Flickr

On the eve of the 2011 Australian Open, tennis great Rod Laver has just uttered some fighting words in the direction of Rafael Nadal who is attempting to win his 4th major in a row, and thus complete what is being called the Rafa Slam.  He says that winning 4 major tournaments in a row is not a Grand Slam unless it happens within one calendar year, from January to September.

“The pressure of winning a Grand Slam — there’s supposed to be a start and an end to it,” Laver said. “There’s no real start or end to it if you just keep going from one year to the next. You can say, ‘Well, I’ll start at Wimbledon,’ or ‘I’ll start at the U.S. Open and win all four in a row.’ ”

Now before I jump on him too much:  1) He is technically correct about the definition, and 2) It’s entirely possible he didn’t mean this at all as a statement of the superiority of his own achievement.  I’d call him foolish for making such a statement if he didn’t use it as a way to brag because of how it comes off, but there are worse things than being a bit foolish when dealing with the media.

Let’s talk about what really matters though:  Is winning 4 majors in a row any less of an achievement if you don’t do it in one calendar year?

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Written by Matt Johnson

January 15, 2011 at 12:22 pm

Federer vs Nadal Debates, after 2010

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We’ve reached the end of the 2010 ATP tennis season, but it doesn’t make sense to actually talk too much about it because there’s not much to argue about.  Rafael Nadal is clearly the Player of the Year, Roger Federer is clearly #2.  Then Djokovic, Murray, and Soderling.  I do think though that it’s an appropriate time to talk about Nadal’s career year, and the Federer-Nadal rivalry.

My opinions:

1)      Nadal was great this year, but his peak still hasn’t match Federer, and possibly not John McEnroe either.

2)      Nadal’s edge in the rivalry over Federer remains far smaller than most people think.

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2010 Women’s Tennis Wrap Up: State of the Game; Player of the Year

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State of the Game

With Kim Clijsters victory at the WTA Championships in Qatar, the WTA season is basically over, and it’s a good time to reflect on the state of the women’s game.
To put it bluntly, and to speak the obvious, it’s not doing that well. Despite a recent change in scheduling to reduce the load on the athletes, injuries are rampant. Maybe more disturbing is that there is a perception, that whatever old champ is healthy at a given moment (Serena, Venus, Clijsters, Henin) will win any tournament that matters.Caroline Wozniacki is the latest young player to come out and race to the #1 ranking by playing a ton of matches without winning a Grand Slam tournament. Even more frustrating, she’s got the most media-friendly looks since Anna Kournikova, and a megawatt personality to match – but because of her lack of power game it seems unlikely she’ll ever become a dominant champion.
A complete explanation for what’s going on seems impossible. If you’re a super-talented female athlete who could thrive in any sport, you’ll pick tennis in most places throughout the world. This is a big advantage that men’s tennis simply doesn’t have, so all things being equal, we should expect to see more impressive stuff on the women’s side beyond just beauty that put the men’s game to shame. And we have in previous generations – look at the power couple of Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, it’s pretty clear that Graf has the superior brain for competing as an athlete. That the current women’s game falls so short is stunning, and mysterious, but we can speak to a few of issues going on.

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