Djokovic’s 2014 was lousy – but 2015 could prove one for the ages.

18 Nov

Djok frustrated

Novak Djokovic had a lousy 2014.

Say what?

As we head into the off-season, tennis commentators are praising the stellar campaign the Serb sensation reeled off over the last eleven months.

And not without reason.

After all, Djokovic finished the year as the world’s number one player for the third time; hoisted seven tournament titles, including five Masters Series crowns and Wimbledon; compiled a 61-8 record; and won north of $14 million in prize money. The Serb finishes 2014 on a 31-match indoor winning streak,[1] and looked all but invincible in claiming his third-consecutive ATP World Tour Final, the exclusive year-end tournament that pits the world’s top eight players against each other. Hell, he even married his longtime girlfriend Jelena Ristic and had a son!

By any metric, 2014 must be considered a huge success for Djok. Right?

Wrong.

Why?

For players like Djokovic, who aspire to join the conversation around tennis’ all-time greatest players, the normal rules of assessment don’t apply. The price of entry into this incredibly exclusive club comes with a high asking price, one singularly payable in the currency of major tournament titles, scrip so elusive it makes Bitcoin seem like the $5 bill you occasionally find under your couch cushion while watching football on Sunday afternoon.

And on the metric of majors – the only one that counts in terms of pursuing tennis immortality – Djokovic’s career has been decidedly mediocre. With 7 slams under his belt, Djokovic is tied with nine other players for 13th on the all-time list, trailing by wide margins contemporaries Roger Federer, who has 17 slams and tops the list, and Rafael Nadal, who has 14. Worse, more than half (4) of Djoker’s slams have come at the Australian Open, which is unfairly, but commonly, considered a second-tier major.

Players Major Titles
Roger Federer 17
Rafael Nadal 14
Pete Sampras 14
Roy Emerson 12
Rod Laver 11
Bjorn Borg 11
Bill Tilden 10
Fred Perry 8
Ken Rosewall 8
Jimmy Connors 8
Ivan Lendl 8
Andre Agassi 8
Novak Djokovic 7

If winning more majors represents the most important step Djokovic must take to press his claim on tennis immortality, then 2014 was dismal. Oh, sure, he won the title at Wimbledon, tennis’ grandest stage. But just.

In a match that should’ve been over in four relatively routine sets, Djokovic surrendered a commanding lead and allowed Federer to surge back into contention. Djok actually faced a break point at 3-all in the fifth, before finally collecting himself to claim the title.

And this, in a nutshell, is the story of Djokovic’s career: fits of unparalleled brilliance, coupled with seemingly inexplicable depressions in performance.

We saw this latter characteristic on display in the year’s other majors.

In Australia, Djok crashed out in the quarters to ascendant Swiss star Stanislas Wawrinka, in a five-set duel in which the Serb looked, at times, outmatched and, at others, disinterested.

At the French Open, Djok faced Nadal, the undisputed king of clay, in the finals. Despite everything I said above about the necessity of capturing numerous major titles in order to enter the conversation on tennis mortality, winning this match and knocking Rafa off his perch at Stade Roland Garros would have instantly entered Djokovic into that conversation. It also would have given the Serb the final jewel in the career grand slam (winning all four majors), a necessary, though not sufficient, accolade for inclusion in talks on tennis timelessness.

Instead, after winning the first set convincingly and pushing things to 5-5 in the second, with a chance to take a commanding two-set lead on the line, Djokovic basically went away. After dropping the second set 7-5, he just straight up started playing badly.

Watching Djok melt down was fascinating. It looked as though he was having an out-of-body experience, observing his on-court self surrender to a vicious cycle of poor play leading to a growing deficit in the score, leading to more poor play and a still-larger deficit.

Rafa-Djok FO 2014

All this, of course, resulted in a loss, but it was the manner in which it happened that raised questions about Djokovic’s robustness as a major champion: Timeless greats don’t succumb to the moment; they rise to meet them. And, instead of meeting his, Djokovic had shirked from it.

Fast forward to the U.S. Open, where Djokovic had an opportunity to ride the momentum of his Wimbledon victory to a second-straight grand slam title and start prosecuting more aggressively his assault on the list of major title winners.

Instead, he ducked out meekly in a four-set semifinal loss to Japanese phenom Kei Nishikori, who had nearly been forced to retire during a colossal fourth-round encounter that tied the record for the latest ending match in Open history, wrapping up just after 2:30 a.m.

After such a loss, one can imagine a champion like Pete Sampras grimacing through the obligatory post-match press conference before slipping off to a public court somewhere in Queens to hit a few boxes of serves and try to fix whatever the hell led him to dip so far from perfection in the inexplicable loss.

Instead, Djok politely praised Nishikori and said something about how tennis would become a second priority after the birth of his son. That kind of comment would be understandable for almost all humans, but not for one pursuing athletic immortality. It left certain observers wondering: Where is the fire? Where is the hunger? Where is the passion?

Given all this, and looking ahead to 2015, it’s time for me to engage in what has become an almost perennial exercise of saying “This has to be the year for Djokovic to make his move.” Except, this time, I really mean it!

So, here’s what I think must constitute the only metric of success for Djok in 2015: Win all four majors. This goal is at once absurdly ambitious and, for him, entirely realistic.

For all their misplaced bombast about the “success” of Djokovic’s year, tennis commentators are right that the Serb finished the season playing at a ridiculously high level. He carries into the off-season huge confidence, great form, and every reason to believe that he should win every match he plays in 2015.

And that’s exactly what I’m calling for him to do: Win everything.

But do it where it counts. In the sweep of history, no one remembers who won the Rome Masters Series, or the Beijing indoors. People remember majors.

So, in 2015, Djokovic should set for himself the goal to pull a clean sweep, a pure grand slam.

This won’t be easy. But, he can do it. Aside from playing the best tennis in the world at the close of 2014, Djokovic will get some external help. Fed has a back injury and with each day moves deeper into his mid-30s. Rafa is riddled with injuries that show no sign of easing. Up-and-comers like Nishikori, Cilic, and Dimitrov, in whom I have huge confidence and from whom I expect big things in future, aren’t quite ready for repeated, sustained prime-time performance during the fortnight of a major.

Meanwhile, Andy Murray – God bless him – is playing better than he did in early 2014, but seems more interested in commenting on Scottish politics than in advancing deep in majors. This endears the Dunblane native in our little Balke Bro hearts. But it won’t help him grind out victories against Djok at the slams.

This is it. Djokovic has a chance to achieve something historic in 2015. Winning the grand slam would not only propel him to 11 majors and move him into a tie for fifth on the all-time list, it would also mean he’d pull off a feat that has been done only once in tennis’ “Open Era,” by Rod Laver, in 1969.

Laver grand slam

So, as he sucks back a sodium-free avocado smoothie and enjoys some well-deserved rest with his wife and son in Belgrade, Balke Bros implore Djokovic to step up and pull off in 2015 the performance we’ve all been waiting for, of which he is so clearly capable, and one that would solidify his spot among tennis’ all-time greats.

[1] We’re not including his walkover win against Federer in Sunday’s ATP World Tour Final championship match, which would have taken the streak to 32. If you want to include that, fine.

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