Where Does Novak Go from Here?

That was certainly an interesting U.S. Open with plenty of let-downs like all of the defaults, or the first men’s SF and plenty of highlights like Wawrinka’s run or the witness to some younger games like that of Evans and Pouille (let me add Donaldson, the other American teen no one talks about who reached R3).

You might have sensed my lifted spirit after the final, the tone of the article fairly upbeat and waxing a bit. I apologize if that was too out of character. Who doesn’t enjoy a great match? The result was healthy for the game. If you don’t see that, I’m sorry for your loss (of vision and objectivity).

Let’s get back to our insightful conjecture and argumentative discourse.

The U.S. Open was a massive loss for Djokovic. I made clear before last year’s final that Djokovic had to win that match, in that he was 1-4 in USO finals; indeed, I was concerned about that number (1) and the other number that loomed fairly large at the time: 9. Before the 2015 USO final, Novak was certainly rolling, but he was at only 9 majors (still a long climb to the Mt. Rushmore of tennis, where so many of us cast our gaze) and talk surrounding the Serb had reached a fever pitch (“This is the greatest single season of all time,” “He’s the GOAT,” yada yada). Most of us realized he was playing great tennis, his season was historical, but we hesitated getting on that bandwagon of delirious fanboys who worship at the church of presentism. Nine is marvelous, but the mountain he and his fans climb goes way the fuck up there.

He still had a long way to go pre USO 2105. I remember getting crossed-up with another tennis blogger, who thought Roger needed the title more than Djokovic in 2015. His rationale was that Roger needed to maintain relevance. Pretty funny, right? Can you imagine if Novak had lost that title to Roger? Holy shit.

Anyways, Novak got the win and won the next two, of course, an in doing so he established the triumphant Nole Slam. Tremendous stuff. Bravo, standing O, really really great tennis from the Serb.

But here we are again. He needed this win, as well. First of all, he’s still climbing that mountain and the summer had been a difficult stretch, mainly losing WB like he did and just not looking himself. Shouldn’t we give the guy a break? That stretch he had through the FO was, again, insanely high level week-in-and-week-out (don’t forget IW and Miami, Rome, etc.).  Just a beast. But he’d dipped and a burn-out was certainly in the cards. I called this almost to a T in my 2016 Predictions article. How could you not? He’s going to defy physiology and history? Nope. He dipped. He had lackluster performances at WB, the Olympics, which seemed to really devastate the guy, and then Toronto was a little underwhelming as the field was pretty thin. He didn’t attend Cincy and got ready to rumble in NYC.

Not only did he need NYC for his chase for 14, 17 or 18; he needs to win NYC, period. Remember my  chuckle a few weeks ago at the comment that Novak will be regarded as the HC GOAT? Folks, 2-5 at the USO is not a good argument for that debate. The USO is HC Taj Mahal. Too much great tennis history emanates from the USO not to look at Novak’s 2-5 with a bit of skepticism. That’s too harsh? Remember the context of this discussion: We’re on the foothills of the Mt. Rushmore of tennis. Let’s call it like we see it.

Again, he needed this USO. For Djokovic, the USO is a tough place for him to play. He has as many USO titles as Nadal. Should I repeat that? Federer and Sampras each have 5. The USO is a very prestigious major and I’m not just being ethnocentric. The AO wasn’t even attended by most players until 1988 when the tournament moved to Melbourne. 1988. And still it just wasn’t nearly the prestige of WB and the USO. Those are the facts that supersede the fact that a major is a major is a major. History plays a huge role in this discussion, one I have made over and over on this blog.

His six AO is incredible, but this alone will certainly not make him king of the HC. Sure you can look at Masters and all of the rest of the subordinate HC tournaments combined, but the USO reigns supreme in the discussion of HC. That’s both purist and tennis common sense. The Masters has, in fact, only more recently become such a tell-tale of tennis greatness. That’s a Fedalovic imprint.

He needed that major for that climb, folks. People are pointing at the 12-9 major finals record, as well. Indeed, that’s another tough pill to swallow for the Djoker-for-GOAT tribe. He is making a valiant effort and personally some of his highest form is truly some of the greatest tennis I’ve ever seen. But we’re talking about a body of work; and those big tournament numbers, where men play best-of-5, define a player’s legacy. That’s just the way it is.

He has 12 majors, still out-of-this-world stuff from a guy who had to dig his way out of the Fedal era. Djokovic has landed on top in many ways and he has more time for sure. He will do more work, for sure.

But I think the majors will be difficult, especially running off another 3 or 4. The only thing that could shut me up is an extended twilight ala Federer, but even then the old man has had an impossible time winning majors.

Now Djokovic looks to the AO to win his seventh and thirteenth. Must win? The French and WB will be tough, for sure. I think all of these will become tougher and tougher. You can see it in his play. He made an incredible run in 2015 and through to the first half of 2016. Is there a cost to that level and consistency? Perhaps.

I mentioned I watched the 2011 USO SF with Roger and Novak. 2011 was Novak’s peak. For me it’s no question and I know there are some out there that say it was earlier than 2011. His tennis then is more athletic, not as flexible, which I think he’s developed, but athletic and relentless. Maybe AO 2012, virtually 2011, is the peak. That final was insanely physical.

Some of my explanation of 2011 > 2015 revolves around the tour. Nadal and Federer, even Del Potro were stronger. That was more of a tennis hey day, imho. On the other hand, 2015 was a down year. Nadal crashed and burned, DelPo gone, and Roger was the ONLY one standing between Novak and major titles, at the tender age of 34 (in at least two cases) and the old man just couldn’t quite contend. A year later and Roger is practically done.

Novak has played a lot of physical tennis. Think about it. Going on 9 years of physical BL tennis. Some say the S &V is a more physical game, hence some of those careers were shorter (Rafter?), but this is incorrect. The BL defensive-to-offensive game of Nadal and Djokovic (and even Wawrinka – he’s been around longer than you may realize) produces more wear-and-tear. Are there obvious similarities between Nole, Rafa, Stan and Andy? Hmmm. Another piece of straw for another bale of hay.

But again my point: Djokovic is going to have a more difficult time winning majors than I think some people think. He’s been so brilliant for so long. 12-9 speaks to that. Not having his A-game in NYC speaks to that, or he just struggles on those courts (still hasn’t won Cincy).

Either way, the end of 2016 hopefully is charmed with Stan, Kei, Milos and Andy joining Novak for some brilliant indoor tennis. Sure, bring Marin, Tomas and Dominic along, too. And what about a Pouille who looks like a top-15, or a #16 Kyrgios making a little noise? Can Gael redeem himself?

Talk to you soon.

16 thoughts on “Where Does Novak Go from Here?

  1. Caligula

    A very balanced write up Matt, well done! It is nice to be able to read a piece about men’s tennis that isn’t tainted with fangirl bullshit. Much of your observations I echo, and I believe many other TENNIS fans do to. As for Nole’s case, I think this loss is a sign of things to come, no one is physically immortal, not even a Nadal who used to be able to return almost every ball, could hold the fatigue/injuries back. Granted Novak seems to be more flexible on court, doing his splits and what not, but as you write the point stands, his game is physically identical to that of Nadal/Murray, base line grinders et al.

    Part of why Federer was able to produce beautiful attacking tennis well into his thirties, was his graceful game. Nole won’t be on tour by the time he is 33 years old. I give him 3 more years, tops, and he is going to limp around the court, and Nadal is gone by 2018. As for the Scot, tough to say, he had back injuries and what not, perhaps if he can be careful with the scheduling he might last longer. GS #18 is impossible to reach for Nole, his time is running out, and he needed more GS wins under his belt in the Fedal era to be a threat to Federer’s GS record, heck as you write, that USO2016 title was imperative. Now unless half of the players he meets in future Slams retire in 2-3 sets, then you can take my prediction and flush it down the toilet, but if we are lucky and he gets the resistance on court that he as #1 player deserves, no fuckin’ way he beats out Federer’s GS record.


    1. I’m not even talking about Fed’s 17. I think he has work to do to reach Nadal and Sampras. Unless they’re just going to hand him an AO title every year, where’s he getting all of these majors. The FO is tough although I could see him winning that again. But WB and USO are going to be thick with big, younger games coming for him. He has done OK at WB although I don’t see his game suited very well for that surface and the USO is clearly a struggle.

      Again, let’s see how AO pans out, which I’m saying now will finally go to Murray. I mean, my God, give the guy an honorary title at least (he has 5 runners-up).


      1. Caligula

        I am so pissed at Murray, this fuckin guy needs his opponent to bend over and play the most conservative tennis so he can finally win the point/game/set in key situations. I laughed out loud watching the Wimbledon finale this year. In one game Raonic is serving and playing like trash, Murray keeps making amateur mistakes over and over again, ad nauseam. Then finally after 3 deuces, the Scot refrains from making an unforced error, has his third breakpoint chance on his opponents serve, and fucks it up again… it’s just bad, you’d have to pick Federer at his worst ever to come close to such irrelevancy.

        As much as I don’t like how Djokovic has been cruising while Fedal have been regressing in the last 2 years, but I hate to say it, Murray can be biggest dumbass ever, no wonder Novak is just toying with him at those big events. Maybe Lendl will terrorize the Scot enough to make him fear failure, because losing in 5 finales at the AO is just… paaainful, I mean yeah, what else can I say?! XD

        As the emperor of Rome, I declare that henceforth Murray is to suffer for his insolence until he redeems himself against Novak at a GS, preferably the AO, if not 30 lashes will suffice.


    2. If Murray stays with Lendl, he’ll be a threat for sure, especially against Novak. He’s won two majors against Novak. Interesting that Stan and Andy happen to have had Major success against the Serb.

      If Murray and Lendl split, Andy may as well retire.


  2. 13-10, 14-10 I think is a very likely finish for that guy in majors. Unless he can win two the next two years, which is possible. But I think it’s going to be tougher than people think. He has played a lot of tennis. A lot of physical tennis.


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