Sunday, July 03, 2016

Novak Ain't No Djoke ... ovic ... Or Is He?

I started writing this post before Novak Djokovic lost to Sam Querrey in the third round of Wimbledon today. The loss makes it easier for me to distill my thoughts, although I'm sure Djokovic would prefer for me to have a harder time putting my thoughts together if it meant he was still playing.

Professional athletes are judged, rightly or wrongly, by how many titles they win. Golfers and tennis players are judged by how many majors they win, and both sports treat winning a Grand Slam as a cross between the Holy Grail, the White Whale, and the scene where Heather Graham takes her clothes off for the first time in Boogie Nights. In Andre Agassi's book Open, when Brad Gilbert wanted to stress how well Andre Agassi played in the four majors starting with the 1999 French Open and ending with the 2000 Australian Open, he noted that Agassi went 27-1 and that the only person to do better than that in a four major stretch in the Open era was Rod Laver. (And parenthetically, I think Djokovic is evolutionary Agassi, or what Agassi could've been if he really liked or wanted to play tennis.)

This influenced how I view a player's career over time. You have to win seven matches to win a major. If you win 20 matches in major play in one year, then on average you made the semi-finals in each tournament. That's pretty spectacular, and when you add in the fact that 20 is a nice round number I decided that a 20 win season is a good barometer for a tennis player's performance.

Why should you give a shit? Because Novak Djokovic is quietly putting together one of the best men's tennis careers of the Open era. I say quietly because he doesn't get nearly as much coverage as Tiger Woods or Mike Tyson in their primes, or Michael Phelps during the run-up to any particular Olympics, or Derek Jeter buying a grande Sumatra at Starbucks. Yet he's doing stuff just as impressive as what those guys did.

And the coverage he gets misses this point. When he lost today, ESPN posted an article stating that the loss "carried away Djokovic's Wimbledon title, his attempt to tie Rod Laver's consecutive Grand Slam win streak at 31 and his drive to try for a calendar year Grand Slam at the US Open." ESPN's tennis homepage said "Novak Djokovic was drowned in a sea of Sam Querrey aces and forehand blasts, thus failing to add another chapter to his legend."

Rather than look at what Djokovic failed to do, let's take a look at what he's accomplished ... over the past five years. It's really impressive. I don't care what Rakim says, I'd like to be a djoke.

To start with, Djokovic held all four major titles at once until today--a Tiger Slam or a Serena Slam, or a Djokovic Slam if you will. The only man to win all four tennis majors in one calendar year in the Open era is Rod Laver. Parenthetically, if you talk to an old tennis fan he or she will tell you that Laver is the best ever. From 1959 to 1962 he played in eleven major finals, winning six, including a Grand Slam in 1962. Then he turned pro and played in fifteen Pro Slam tournaments, reaching fourteen finals and winning eight. Then the Open era started in 1968. He played in three majors that year, reaching the finals in two and winning one. He won the Grand Slam again in 1969 (clicks). It's a preposterous performance timeline. Lord knows how many majors wins he'd have if he hadn't turned pro or if the Open era started in 1955. And the best sneaker ever is named after him.

All this is to say that ESPN should pipe down about Djokovic failing to win a calendar Slam. Much like pimpin', it ain't easy.

Back to the Djokovic Slam, which is four majors in a row. The list of men who won four majors in a row in the history of tennis is Don Budge (six in a row from 1937-38), Laver (four in a row twice), and Djokovic. That's it. That's the list. So ESPN should lay off the "failing to add another chapter to his legend" nonsense. The Djokovic Slam is legendary.

In fact, Djokovic's previous five years have been legendary. I checked out the stats of everyone who won five or more majors in the Open era and made a table analyzing each player's five best consecutive years in major play. I picked five because that's a pretty long window of time in a tennis player's career and I wanted to analyze dominance over a significant period of time. I left off Laver and John Newcombe because their careers started before the Open era and that screwed up my comparisons. I also included Andy Murray because, well, you'll see.

Here's the table. The first column of numbers reflects the best five year span in the player's career in terms of wins at major tournaments, the next column reflects the losses, and the next column reflects the winning percentage. These three columns do not reflect the results of the 2016 season because the US Open wasn't held yet. The "best 1 loss streak" reflects the player's best streak in major play including one loss. For example, Nadal won the 2010 French, Wimbledon, and US Open (21 wins) then made the quarters of the 2011 Australian (4 wins) and won the 2011 French (7 wins). He then won 6 matches at Wimbledon in 2011. So that's 38-1 before his second loss (in the Wimbledon finals). I only measured streaks that started with a major win. The rest is self-explanatory. (And it might be easier to see if you click on the table.)

What does all this mean? Let me give you some context. Jim Courier is a Hall of Famer, was #1 in the world for 58 weeks, went 4-3 in major finals from 1991-1993 and won 62 major matches over that span. He won 118 matches at major tournaments in his career. Djokovic won 122 from 2011-2015. Only Federer was better over a five year stretch.

Speaking of Federer, he reached all four finals three times (2006, 2007, 2009). That's nuts. In 2006 and 2007 he won three finals and lost only the French (to Nadal both times). That's also nuts.

More context. Bjorn Borg played tennis for nine years but only played in one Australian Open. I guess he dislikes the southern hemisphere. Anyway, this means he amassed all his stats playing in only three tournaments a year so his two 20 win seasons are Herculean (or at least Federerean). Between 1976 and 1981 he played in seventeen majors and reached the finals fourteen times. Borg was good at tennis.

Similarly, McEnroe skipped ten Aussies, six French and two Wimbledons. Connors eschewed the Australian all but twice, winning once and losing the finals in the other. Connors also ignored the French ten times. If you filter the table by 5 year win percentage you get this:

This jibes with my sense of history a little bit more. Borg is on top, McEnroe and Connors move up, and Agassi/Edberg/Becker are at the bottom fringe. Djokovic is still in the top three. Interestingly, I remember Wilander as being a force of nature and expected him to be higher, but he had peaks and valleys in majors, aside from his mammoth 1988 season.

Djokovic's 122 wins over 5 years correspond to an average of 6.1 wins per tournament. This means his average finish at majors was a finals appearance. If Djokovic loses in the semis he had a below-average tournament. Federer averaged 6.35 wins and Borg 6.21 wins per tournament at their peaks. Again, these numbers are for periods of five years. That's inhuman dominance. Note that these averages reflect the actual number of majors each person played in their peak five years. If you just assume 20 games as the denominator Borg looks less inhuman.

What about the streak? Djokovic looks pretty good in that regard as well. Second-best after Federer's aforementioned gonzo run from 2006-2007.

Djokovic is also top-three in 20 win seasons, and he already has sixteen so far this year. [When I was almost done with this monstrosity I realized that Lendl had seven 20 win seasons, not six. I'm too lazy to fix it and it doesn't change the rank order outcome.]

And I think this is an interesting statistic despite the fact that several great players only appeared in three tournaments a year. It's not like they had to swim to Australia. They could've gone.

Only Federer has appeared in more major finals than Djokovic. Again, these numbers are possibly skewed by the fact that several players didn't appear in four tournaments a year, but then again, why should we hold that against anyone who plays in all four?

Djokovic has won a major event in each of the past six years. Only four men have done better. Borg and Federer come up again because they're Borg and Federer. Sampras and Nadal have more because they dominated on one surface.

The only metric that puts Djokovic in the middle of the pack is finals win percentage.

Pistol Pete though! Note that he was 7-0 at Wimbledon and 7-4 everywhere else ... which by itself is still 64%, close to the top of this list.

This table also brings Andy Murray into focus. By almost every other measure, Murray is equivalent to Becker and Edberg, two all-time greats. But he's only 2-8 in major finals. You might thing it's because he "can't win the big one." I think it's because he has shit luck:

Murray appeared in ten major finals and faced Federer or Djokovic--the two guys at the top of almost all of the preceding lists--every time! It's hard out here for a Scotsman.


Also, Ivan Lendl was really really good. We, or at least I, forget about this. He was dominant in the mid-to-late 80s but for whatever reason is remembered almost entirely for failing to win Wimbledon. But the guy was a human metronome in multiple ways. His strokes were so grooved that he was criticized for being robotic and his power baseline game was sneered at as boring. As I type this I see that there's a fucking typo in my table but I'm too lazy to fix it now--Lendl had seven 20-win seasons and they were consecutive. Five of them were 20 wins right on the nose. Dude was consistent, and consistently good. He was also a workout fanatic. Some even said that Lendl wasn't that talented, he just worked his ass off to become a tennis machine--as if that's not admirable! Fast forward 20-30 years and everyone is a workout fanatic with a power baseline game. He was ahead of his time.

What's my point about Djokovic? In the 48 year history of men's Open tennis, only a handful of people have played at Djokovic's level of the last five-and-a-half years. Rather than focus on all the things he can't accomplish because he lost a third round match to the number 41 player in the world, we should look at everything he did before that and say "Holy shit, we just saw something special" or even better "Holy shit, we're in the middle of something special, we need to pay attention before it's gone forever!"

So watch more tennis and enjoy Djokovic while you can.


rob said...

glad we raised the money to support long form journalism like this. well done, zed.

less glad that teejay blew all the cash on socks and beard grooming supplies.

rob said...

marcus starts summer league with the celtics tomorrow.

Danimal said...

another nice deep dive by zed. thorough. patient. diligent. you should have been a lawyer.

2 or 3 years ago I said to my wife that for our 10th anniversary we were going to head to Europe for a couple of weeks and time it such that we'd hit a day or two at Wimbledon, a day or to at the British Open and a day in a town or two where Le Tour ended a stage. that anniversary was this past December. I think we went out to dinner instead. but god dammit we're going to do it one of these years. who's with us?!

tr - how was that Travelodge room service this morning? or did you head down do their world-famous brunch?

Danimal said...

The Tour' started at Mount Saint Michel, pictured here... I recommend googling and seeing some of the images. I want to live there.

Shlara said...

Brilliant analysis Z
I love Djokovic--he's hot and he's fun to watch and he wins a lot.
Yes, he has athletic talent, but the metal toughness it takes to maintain his level of excellence in an individual sport is amazing.
He's totally under-appreciated.

rob said...

okay, kids, let's hear your predictions: where is kd going? i say he stays in okc on a one-year deal.

Shlara said...

I still think KD is signing a two year deal with OKC with a one-year player option.
Russ's contract is up next season and if Russ goes, KD goes then too.
The chances of winning a Chip in OKC are better than in BOS next season and I don't think GSW was ever a serious consideration.

rob said...

that's why i meant by a one-year deal. with the cap going up again next year, it'd be fiscal idiocy to do anything else.

T.J. said...

serious question: who the fuck is tyler johnson? cause twitter tells me he is getting 50 mil

Mark said...

I agree with Rob and Shlara on KD. It makes the most sense for him to do the two year deal with an opt out after one year in OKC. Both from a financial and professional standpoint. Unless he already knows Russ is out, which is doubtful.

As for Tyler Johnson, he's a very athletic backup PG out of UTEP. He was injured for a large part of this season (shoulder) but he's good and young and a reportedly really hard worker/good guy. Woj said he was going to get at least $10M earlier this week when he was on with LeBatard so 4/50 isn't a huge surprise in the new NBA.

Danimal said...

Randal Cunningham's daughter heading to Rio as a a high jumper. She is somewhat attractive.

mayhugh said...

Wife and I saw the fireworks and theN Came home and watched Game of Thrones. We are very late to the party - just started watching a few weeks ago - but we came home and watched Episode 9, Season 3. Holy cow!!

Mark said...

I don't remember what episode that was but GOT is fucking great. Welcome.

zman said...

Is that the one with the naked ladies or the dragons?

rob said...

we nailed the kd thing

TR said...

Uh oh, I have to tell my kid.

Shlara said...

Hope it goes better than this TR

rob said...

my mother-in-law just said, 'i must be part black because i like watermelon so much'. that was a fun moment.

Mark said...


zman said...

And she was eating honeydew at the time.

Mark said...

I feel bad for TR's kid because he's going to have to go through this all over again with Russ next summer.

TR said...

I am making the executive decision to wait to tell him until tmrw. The entire family is running on fumes after a BBQ/fireworks shindig at a buddy's golf club an hour away last night. Kisds were up to 11, and dad had many scotches. Everybody awoke early this morning. He is blissfully zoned out on the couch, watching DVR'd Shark Week stuff. He needs to hear the news in a normal state of mind.

Klay Thompson can't be psyched about the number of shots he'll lose to KD next year.

Dave said...

wow zman. i had trouble following this because imagining heather graham naked ruins my attention span, but i'm going to appreciate djokovic more in the future.

zman said...

My 2 year old daughter just ended a dispute with my 5 year old son by cold cocking him with a right cross. Am I proud of her or ashamed of him? Or both? Parenting is hard.

Mark said...

More proud than ashamed based on age deficit and gender, IMO

TR said...

Like Dave, I appreciated the post, but was extremely distracted by the Heather Graham reference.

I held back from entering "Aim it at her tits, Eddie" as the thread's first comment. Barely.

Danimal said...

I motion to move the celebration of our nation to the first Saturday of July from this point onward.

rob said...

heard some of sam presti's press conference yesterday on our drive home. that's one impressive dude.

rob said...

seconded, danimal

Danimal said...

poor planning on my part. have to head on over to loh'n on sunday...had flexibility as to when I went. as in, I could have gone this week. I've got a cohort over there now who is courtside for the venus match.