Thursday, February 9, 2012

2012 a Record Year For Djokovic?

By Angus Saul

Put aside everything you heard about Novak Djokovic last year. Best year ever? Longest winning streak? On the way to being amongst the greats and legends?

Two of those are wrong. You can debate all you like, but the facts are the facts. Djokovic's 2011 was, indeed, astounding, and many hailed it as the best year ever. How short some memories are...

Has Roger Federer's 2006 been erased from history? He won three slams, like Djokovic, and reached the final of the other — surpassing Djokovic — and had a far better win-loss record on the season, coming within one win of John McEnroe's record.

The only way in which Djokovic's season was better, was his more impressive start, going 41 matches unbeaten from the start of 2011. But even that falls short of McEnroe's record.

The third is a matter of debate. Could Djokovic join the ranks of the greats? Certainly. Will he? Perhaps, perhaps not. Five grand slams is an impressive feat, but it isn't quite what makes one of the greats. Federer has 16, Sampras has 14, Laver has 11, Borg has 11, and Nadal has 10. Lendl and McEnroe have 8 and 7, respectively.

But no matter how many slams they won, they had something else about them that made them special. Something that made them "great" before they won those slams. McEnroe was famous for his fiery temper on the court. Perhaps it is not the best thing to be remembered for, but it made him stand out. Lendl brought something new to the game in that he made it what it is today, with supreme levels of fitness and strength; he was the first of the modern tennis players. Borg won the French and Wimbledon back-to-back three times, and he won Wimbledon five times in a row, the first man in the modern era to do so.

Each had something more than just a prolific winning streak. Perhaps Djokovic will be known for his impressive consistency or for his aggressive play. Will he be known for his surprising turnaround in his mental game, from retiring all too quickly from imagined injuries and turning into a force that can win five-set matches back-to-back against a world No. 4 and the world No. 2? Will it be the mental change triggered because he hadn't won a slam in three years, and then suddenly someone flicked a switch and he couldn't lose?

Or will he dominate 2012, as well? Will he be the first man since Laver to complete a calendar grand slam? That would surely put him in the history books. It would bump him up to 8 grand slam titles, too. And perhaps he will go one step further this year and surpass McEnroe's record and have the best win-loss record in a single year every recorded. If anyone can do it, Djokovic can.

2011 was the year that made Djokovic. Can 2012 be the year he breaks all the records and becomes a legend? Only time will tell.

So what does he need to do to secure his place among the greats? One thing is for sure, however odd it may seem to say it: he needs to up his game. He is a very consistent player, and works well both defensively, but best when he is on the offense. That is both his greatest strength and his biggest weakness.

His great run in 2011 was halted by a shoulder injury, brought on by the sheer number of matches he was playing. But that is no excuse. Back in 2006, Federer compiled a far superior win-loss record on the season without injury. Perhaps that is down to his graceful, flowing game, which is less physically demanding on the body? If so, there is not much Djokovic can do about it. He can't alter his style of game, especially when it is proving so fruitful.

However, something within his control is the length of his matches. Djokovic spends a lot of time on court, both during points, and in between them. He is on court far more than necessary.

In his Wimbledon final against Nadal in July last year, he spent an average of just over 30 seconds in between points. Aside from the fact that 25 seconds is the maximum time permitted in the rules of tennis (unless a tournament announces otherwise before the event starts), Roger Federer takes on average 7 to 10 seconds between points, making his matches much shorter. There is something to be learned here. Get off the court ASAP, and get the maximum amount of rest after the match is over.

Also, Djokovic has the weapons to finish points a lot quicker than he does. Yes, he likes to build his plays slowly, but he is good enough to put the ball in one corner, then the other, and then come into the net to finish the point off. Djokovic always seems wary of the net. His net play is good — not brilliant, but good enough — and he should use it to finish the points more quickly.

He seems to have Nadal's number, and so, as in 2011, it is safe to think Nadal won't pose too much of a threat. He'll put up a good fight, but the fire is gone. He doesn't believe he can beat Djokovic any more.

The case is not the same with Andy Murray. The pair are friends, and Murray is coming on in leaps and bounds with new coach Ivan Lendl. Murray may be the one who will stand in Djokovic's way in 2012. He is the biggest threat. The Scot may not have won a slam, but he is hungry, and he now has both the physical and the mental game to challenge the top three for the major titles.

As for 2012 being a record-breaking year for Djokovic? I don't think he'll break any records — other than the longest Australian Open final — but he's certain on having another great year.

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