Djokovic’s Highest Form Ever (DHFE)

The summer is a glorious time of year on the ATP since we get a chance to see the year’s strongest athletes outlast those weakened by the long and arduous season that began in early January (or the ones who’s games just tend to wilt on this most even and rigorous surface). The firm quickness becomes more unforgiving, speed presses the point, each exchange more a test of skill and weaponry than of one’s fluency toward the idiosyncracies of a particular surface; and the air temperature rises along with its seasonal bosom buddy, the humidity. Indeed, the North American summer hard courts offer us a candid look at the tour’s best playing on the surface that showcases the best and exposes the rest, I’m afraid.

I think a good place to start with this DHFE is recalling when we tackled that quasi-related claim that Federer won 2017 AO because Melbourne played significantly faster this year (part of the grand conspiracy) and (get ready, I’m warning you, this is an argument advanced by Djokerfans) Novak doesn’t play as well on such a fast surface? Why would one ever make such a claim about their hero? That’s undermining Super Novak, novak_djokovic4_1359023691_540x540pointing-out a flaw in his game (a big flaw if you ask me). Novak’s 2-5 USO finals record and his inability to win Cincinnati (the one Masters he hasn’t won) speaks to this difficulty on the quicker courts; and making this shortcoming into some kind of strength doesn’t bode well; or arguing that his hard court record overall is the best-of-all-time, where the fanclub refers to him as HC GOAT. These we might suggest are Red herrings, squandered on the breach.

As we turn here to the summer N.A. HC swing, all of this bluster about Novak’s HC greatness takes quite a hit. And if you’re going to argue that he has shown the HFE on a tennis court, personally, I would start my argument with NYC HCs to support such a statement, then probably WB, before any sort of legitimate argument about HFE is made. Looking at the competition would be the other factor, or even the people who are making this claim. Many of these Djoker “representatives” are belligerent, of course, but I even heard mainstream media mouth-pieces get a little carried-away, as well, especially back in 2015-16.

I was fairly frank about Novak’s dominance at the time. I had no problem saying that this was an historical run, and that I didn’t quite see the end of it, with Fedal sailing out to sea, Muzzard typically muzzled, etc., yes, thought the competition was pretty poor (argued that Roger – at 34 – gave some of the Serb’s majors added/needed weight since beyond the Maestro, and perhaps Murray, what was really left?). Never did I step into that pile of HFE, however. Too much evidence to the contrary, especially if you’ve been watching the men battle for decades now and you’re not afraid to watch and re-read the history of this great sport.

Before we go any further, might I bring to everyone’s attention that articles like this  aren’t composed, perhaps, if such vehement (and vitriolic) subjectivity toward our fair sport isn’t strewn all over the place like debris after an ill-advised engagement or wedding has occurred. DHFE is a rival faction against all sensible tennis fans.

And how apropos that we’re here, on the eve of the run toward NYC.

The NYC HC, I would argue, is where the best pure tennis is played. NYC has gobs of evidence of this kind of greatness, more so, I will argue, then the other HC major – AO. Part of this is the AO snub from a few greats (Borg, Connors, McEnroe, et al.). Plus, the USO is simply an older tournament; age, location and history all play into suggesting that the USO determines a more significant title that, by the way, builds a more significant legacy than an arbitrary claim about form. One should play best where the best is played.

Indeed, I am saying that one’s form at the USO should be a big part of any argument for HFE (which is so subjective). Saying the USO is more prestigious than the AO because of its history and speed is not arbitrary.

Why haven’t FO champions, before Nadal, ever sniffed the upper echelon of such arguments (careful with Borg as he never won the USO and went away too early)?

Speed kills. The USO has that relentless call for a highest level of fortitude and execution on the tennis court. Quite a cocktail when you have all that history, those brightest lights, the concrete jungle and the lethal speed and precision of the razor’s edge.

As we undermine this DHFE claim, we have made a bit of a suggestion, then, that the USO (even Roger’s Cup and Cincy) should be a part of any discussion of HFE since this is the surface and the venue where such a boisterous and preposterous claim might find its footing.

Fans have been claiming the DHFE since he began his 2015 run (or even before that most likely) and the 2016 Doha final v Nadal gave them a little added lift. Here’s Nadal’s analysis of Djokovic’s form in that final – the Serb pummeled the Spaniard 6-1 6-2.

Two things: This was a tune-up for Melbourne, a minor tournament in early January, a 250; and Nadal wasn’t exactly playing very well. Do we need to recall Nadal’s 2016 results? He was still shaken from his absolutely dreadful 2015. He shows-up at Doha as Novak is still screaming from his 2015 – two players in completely different career points.

Nadal went-on to lose in 1R at Melbourne. All this to say, don’t use this eye-witness (who probably has more credibility than anyone making such a claim) as evidence for DHFE.

To be fair, the Djoker went-on to win 2016 AO, the Sunshine Double, Madrid and then the FO before the wheels came off and he spun into the Djokollapse.

We actually see here the culmination of the case for DHFE. He wins 2015 AO (Murray), WB (Federer), USO (Federer), 2016 AO (Murray) and 2016 FO (Murray).

The sheer amount of success (Novak Slam) in which he’s pretty much unfazed by his competition anywhere (his majors won by beating the perennial ATP bridesmaid and a 34-35 year-old Federer) concocts the rumor that this is the HFE. Many arguments were made about Djokovic’s 2015 being the greatest season of all-time. His numbers that year were staggering, for sure. Therefore, he played the HFE?

But based on what exactly? His W-L record?  This article shows the greatest seasons ever based on W-L:

1. John McEnroe — 1984 — 82-3 (.965)
2. Jimmy Connors — 1974 — 93-4 (.959)
3. Roger Federer — 2005 — 81-4 (.953)
4. Roger Federer — 2006 — 92-5 (.948)
5. Bjorn Borg — 1979 — 84-6 (.933)
6. Novak Djokovic — 2015 — 82-6 (.932)

If we’re basing the HFE on W-L, then DHFE is a stretch. Remember though: the Djokerfan will levy the level of competition tax on our ears. Djokovic was unbelievable, the argument goes, against top-10, top-5, etc. His case here with W-L becomes more formidable.

So then we’re into the level of competition factor of this equation. Which the Djokerfan doesn’t want any part of, I’m afraid. Spanking a trained Murray and a waning Federer doesn’t crack the whip. Throwing around seeds and top-5 opponents, etc., needs more context since this can be quite misleading.

So, is it the play he manufactured on the court? Along the lines of what Nadal said after Doha, a Nadal who had little leg on which to stand?

Ahhh, the 2015-PF argument (2015 Peak Federer). If we can argue that Federer was at his peak in 2015, with Djokovic handling him fairly easily in two major finals (WB and USO mind you!), and Federer is, by many, considered the GOAT, then by simple logic, if we’re beating the greatest at his peak, we’re the greatest!

Doesn’t that sound absurd, especially the use of that pronoun?

How about some 2005 Federer, folks (this is probably two years before his absolute peak when, in fact, he beat Djokovic in straights in a USO final).

This is Federer v Agassi 2005 USO final we’re going to see. Look at the depth and disaster on Federer’s racquet. This is complete bedlam. Agassi is playing well here, even though he’s at the end. I would say this helps us see my point about this surface showcasing the greatest tennis, the purity and cleanliness of the shot, the athleticism, etc.

Look at Federer’s FH and BH. And listen to some of the commentary. Early in the video, McEnroe (at 1:05) points-out that Agassi has the “greatest ROS in the history of the sport.” I remember explaining this truth to a big Djokerfan who didn’t grasp Agassi’s ROS prowess (which undermines much of this “tennis expert’s” understanding of the sport). And remember: Federer wasn’t exactly hitting Andre off the court since the American great had done years of battle with the GREATEST SERVE IN THE HISTORY OF THE SPORT. As I’ve said a million times, give me Novak on Pete’s serve; granted, Novak is supreme in the ROS department, but don’t overlook the rest of the history of the sport, folks. Andre could hold his own, which he does in this match, a bit.

But Federer is simply unplayable, from both wings, on serve, etc. Watch.

Here’s some of the Djokovic v Nadal 2016 Doha final

Ladies and gentlemen, if one goes to the HFE argument, we need convincing evidence, narrative, numbers, etc. 2016 Doha is not getting it done, a 250 in January against a morbid Nadal.

We’re on the eve of the big run-up to the last major, what some would argue is the grandest of the grand slams. I think it’s fitting to approach any talk of HFE by referring to the USO.

Djokovic can play tennis with the best of them; he has a great case as one of the best players of all time. No question. But the HFE argument is just ignorant, lacks context, evidence and is, like many of these GOAT powwows, another instance where one’s bias has him by his ass.

Some of the esteemed readers of this blog have made some great points in the previous post’s comments. Some of this entails the massively flawed 2015-PF claim. If you look at that 2005 footage, search some 2006-10, you’ll probably see a pretty strong game from Federer that subordinates anything from 2013-16, a time in which the man was reaching his mid thirties, playing a brutal schedule and not really adding much to his game.

You know what I think of the Ljubičić hire, how this breathed confidence and execution back into the Swiss’ game plan, along with a very real sense of revenge (which probably best illustrates this fresh breath, this deliverance of Roger Federer in 2017). He had the injury break and the time to tweak his game for this specific run in 2017.

But, but, but. Go back to the 2005 USO final video above. The reason it’s probably easier to say that Federer has a better case for HFE than does Djokovic revolves around the simple eye-test. Ljubičić has been instrumental, but Federer already had some decent tools to work with.

Federer has so many weapons. His BH in 2005, in that video, is so offensive it’s silly. The confidence and execution there make for an insanely formidable day at the office for his opponent; and it’s more fearsome than the 2017 version. The FH is then THE most deadly weapon in the gamd. He’s CC and DTL at will, deep, his athleticism organizing each shot. His serve is, as we know, a massive weapon.

At 4-2 in the first set he delivers two aces in particular here. One is 112mph down the T; the other is 124 out-wide, both from the ad side, both unreadable from one of the best “readers” the game has ever seen from the ROS.

Of course, he finishes points at the net (almost) as well as anyone. Agassi, like so many of his non-clay opponents of this era, has very little chance. That’s four point-ending weapons.

Federer’s real peak has all of this in full view with a much more youthful, threatening persona that few could deal with.

This DHFE pertains to the masterful baseliner, with a brilliant ROS, great court-movement to buttress his great FH and BH. His serve got better under Becker, but it was never in that Federer class, let alone other greats.

I am going to close and say that if you are going to make this HFE claim, you better include in your calculations the prospects of longevity, of one being able to sustain it since “highest” or “best” is only so if one can sustain such form.

And that will be the final chapter here with Djokovic, with DHFE, Djokollapse (and his legacy in general, something I will deal with in the HRFRT eBook).

His is a form that will be tough to sustain, imho. Watching Nishikori today in D.C., I thought about Djokovic. This is such a physical style of tennis, one that requires a long,  defensive stance.

Finishing points becomes even more critical as a player ages.

How does Djokovic finish points? This will be most telling. Nadal, as we saw throughout clay this year, was very aggressive, the FH ending points before anyone could even figure-out what was happening. And Nadal has a great net game, as we’ve mentioned many times before.

But the argument with Nadal has been longevity, as well. Does he have enough for the HC this summer? We shall see.

We’re bound to carry this conversation on throughout the comments and in several subsequent posts.

As I’ve made quite clear, the tour needs a healthy Djokovic and we wish him the best, deepest and quickest recovery. But his fanatics need to clean-up after themselves with regards to much of this unnecessary and unrealistic zoology (GOAT experiments in particular).

This stream-of-consciousness DHFE discourse ought to have woken me from slumber. Thanks for reading.

Looking forward to talking about some of the tennis tomorrow. D.C. is in full tilt.

Cheers.

13 comments

  1. Hmm, Good stuff Matt, and everyone else. I have to admit I’ve been lurking around here for a couple of days, very busy at work but fully intending to start an argument with someone!

    But everyone’s posts are so valid that I can’t ! Maybe your readership is just too cerebral, reflective, insightful, etc. for us to have many arguments, Matt.

    Hey, you wanna argue about that?

    🙂

  2. Great post Matt – you raise an interesting point about Djokovic’s lack of success on fast courts. IMHO he is not the best fast court player, but he’s been up there at the top since at least 2011. While considering 2-5 USO and 0 Cincinnati titles, let’s also remember that Novak has won Bercy (a notably fast court) 4 times, including a hat-trick in 2013-2015.

    I think all the whining about scheduling and court speed this year by his diehards is just dumb lib-soc attempt to cover up the fact that their player simply couldn’t get it done this year – and that he is streakier than perhaps any male tennis player in history who has won 10+ majors.

    1. At least last year Bercy was one of the slower HC. Shanghai is the quick one and Novak has won that 3 times.

      I’m not particularly a big Masters guy when it comes to analyzing historical legacy since that is a very recent parameter. The majors are the common denominator, the Bo5, the biggest lights, where the best have to rise-up. . . which has been happening for a long long time.

      1. I agree with you there. Novak has been scalped in too many HC finals in his supposed prime.

        Bercy perhaps like all courts has been slowed down in the past few years. It was fast enough when Federer won in 2011. BTW have you noticed that O2 has also slowed down over the years? It was quite fast during the epic Murray-Federer Semi back in 2008 or 2009.

        BTW like the new look of the blog Matt. Cheers! 🙂

      2. I think most courts have been slowed over the years, but it’s tough to keep track. Have to look into that; I’m sure some have, technically, been sped-up (like Shanghai and . . . Melbourne 🙂

        Thanks for the feedback on the blog. Probably not the finished look, but I’m trying.

    2. Hey Utsav,

      I wouldn’t dream of starting an argument about how streaky and inconsistent Djokovic can be; you’re quite right about that. Even though we’re in need of a serious argument here…

      But I do want to give him a should for one piece of trivia.

      Folks have lauded Federer for years about his 23 consecutive semifinals appearances (18 finals out of 19 – from Wimbledon ’05 to AO ’10 may be even more impressive). Like DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, it was a record that would never be matched, many said.

      But if not for a loss to Stan at AO ’14, Djokovic would have appeared – from Wimbledon ’10 to FO ’16 – in 24 consecutive semifinals.

      Of course, he did lose to Stan. But I was still impressed by that run!

      Best,
      Incondite

  3. Matt, you make an excellent point about 2005. Let’s take a moment to appreciate just how special Andre was even in his waning years. You do not see any baseliners play the way he played (so aggressively) in USO 2005 even today. For 2 and a half sets he went toe to toe with Roger and had him on the ropes for a few games as well. Unlike Nadal and Djokovic, he also had a potent serve to bail him out of tough return games. DHFE-ers are retards who don’t know anything about the sport.

    I am watching this clip again and again – it has over 50% of the points. The game today is totally different. Roger taking so many chances today surprises so many, but if anything, he’s only playing his old game with a slightly retooled BH (and a better mental game but that goes without saying).

    1. Agree. That 2005 Federer is absolute bedlam. The HC matters here as no one can stay with that kind of shot making, velocity, depth and accuracy. He was a bit reckless in his attack, but just too much, in the end.

  4. Sorry for spamming you Matt, but here’s one more interesting stat. Anti-Federer folks like to call him a mental midget, among other things. So let me go the Djokofan route and whip up the stats for most matches won from two sets to love down. Guess who’s at the top?

    10 – Roger Federer
    9 – Todd Martin, Andy Murray, Boris Becker
    7 – Tommy Robredo, Fabio Fognini, Andy Murray
    6 – Radek Stepanek, Andre Agassi, Stanislas Wawrinka, Lleyton Hewitt, Nicolas Lapentti, David Nalbandian, Wayne Ferreira

    Shall we then conclude that all these players have better mental games than Nadal (2 matches) and Djokovic (3 matches)? This is the kind of absurd conclusion you come to when you are blind to the eye test and only cite stats to support your contrived conclusions. Nothing against Nadal or Djokovic; I don’t like their games but respect them as greats. But their fans are a different matter…

    https://github.com/JeffSackmann/tennis_atp

What say you?