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.